The Biden administration’s infrastructure push presents a rare chance for U.S. school districts to make their buildings both greener and cheaper to operate.

This story about school buildings was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic made airflow a life-or-death issue, ventilation experts rarely tested the air inside U.S. schools. That was probably a mistake, said Kevin Thomas, the business representative for the union representing ventilation workers in the Seattle area.

“You don’t feel the CO2 levels going up, you just start to get tired,” said Thomas of Sheet Metal Workers Union Local 66, which represents heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, or HVAC, workers. “The temperature rises, and you just take off your sweatshirt.”

Similar findings have been recorded by HVAC experts across the U.S. — perhaps not surprising in a country where about 36,000 schools have ventilation systems in need of attention. But replacing aging ventilation systems with new versions of the same out-of-date technology won’t be enough, warned Tony Hans, an engineer specializing in green buildings.

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