PLATTSBURGH — U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) hopes that the next federal coronavirus stimulus package will incorporate a bill that allocates $130 billion for school infrastructure funding.
In a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday, the senator announced the Rebuild and Reopen America's Schools Act of 2021, which she said would help schools to address structural building concerns in order to safely reopen under U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Gillibrand said COVID-19 has highlighted inequities that have been part of the country's education system for far too long, and that every student should be able to learn safely.
"It’s critical to their future and the future of our country," she continued. "This legislation will help our schools make the infrastructure upgrades that they desperately need, and provide all of our teachers and students with safe working environments, learning environments that they deserve."
Gillibrand said getting all students back into school requires ensuring that schools and school environments are safe through both the implementation of testing, tracing and vaccination plans, and addressing health and safety threats posed by poor infrastructure.
Though the CDC considers heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) capabilities key for schools looking to reopen, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released last June found that four in 10 school districts need to update those systems in at least half of their schools, Gillibrand said.
According to the senator, more than half of the country's school districts have to replace or update major systems in half of their buildings. She pointed to a 2016 State of Our Schools report which found state and local governments spend $46 billion less than what they should on these facilities.
"Repairing these facilities and HVAC systems and getting schools COVID-safe will cost money the schools do not have," Gillibrand said. "The pandemic has brought these needs to the forefront at a time when states are facing unprecedented budget shortfalls."
Such shortfalls will disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color, she continued.
"A child’s ability to attend public school without risking their health should not depend on where they live or how much money their local government has. We must do more to make sure every community has the resources it needs to make schools safe."
Gillibrand said the Reopen and Rebuild America's Schools Act — introduced in the House last week — would allocate $100 billion in grants and $30 billion in bond authority targeting high-poverty schools.
"It would also allocate funding on an emergency basis to help schools get in line with CDC public health guidelines including repairing and replacing their HVAC systems."
According to Gillibrand, these school infrastructure projects could create more than two million jobs. The bill would also help expand high-speed broadband access to public schools, she added.
The senator said the districts would need to show how the projects funded impact students, and said eligible uses range from lighting, electrical and fire protection systems to improvements to student learning spaces to addressing environmental conditions such as lead or mold exposure.
"So not a new football field, but, yes, new computers."
Gillibrand noted that President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan includes $130 billion for K-12 funding, so this bill would be part of that.
"This legislation is also in President Biden’s Build Back Better Plan which … includes and prioritizes improving air quality and addressing health risks in schools."
SOONER THE BETTER
During a meeting with Biden Monday night, a group of 10 Republican senators pitched a much slimmer $618 billion alternative to his proposed relief package. Talks with Republicans continue, though Biden has encouraged lawmakers to "go big."
"For me, there's probably about 20 non-negotiables," Gillibrand said.
She specifically named many: unemployment insurance; $1,400 stimulus payments to supplement the $600 passed under the previous administration in December; funding for food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children; rental relief and protection from eviction; and funding for first responders, health care workers, states and cities, the care economy, small businesses and agriculture.
"Those are at least my top lines for sure."
And the sooner relief legislation can be passed, the better, Gillibrand continued.
"I mean, we need COVID relief now. People are hungry now. They don’t have money now, they don’t have money for rent now, they’re being evicted now, they’ve lost their jobs now. So everything that I care about is sooner the better to get resources into the community so people can stop suffering."
Email Cara Chapman: