Schools Face New Obstacles in Building Maintenance

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As more schools close again due to the spread of the coronavirus, the surge is raising new worries about an old problem: the condition of local school buildings.

A review of internal reports from leaders in D.C., Maryland and Virginia shows maintenance backlogs were a problem long before the pandemic began and remain a big concern as this semester ends.

Even before the omicron variant, Becky Reina says she felt more comfortable keeping her kids home than sending them back to the classroom this fall. The D.C. mom had too many concerns with air filtration in her kids’ school, among other issues.

“They don't have enough maintenance staff, they don't have enough cleaning supplies, they don't have enough people to maintain all of the infrastructure in these buildings,” she said. “And that's been a historic problem before the pandemic.”

A review of state and D.C. school building records found maintenance backlogs indeed predated the pandemic but have been especially difficult to tackle during it.

Keith Anderson, the head of D.C.’s Department of General Services, which oversees the District’s 117 school buildings, says the problem isn’t lack of funding or staff.

“Construction and facilities maintenance comes down to two things: labor and parts,” he said. “Now what we are having issues with is getting the parts to complete the jobs.”

In Prince George’s County, a parent-teacher organization president said she regularly hears from maintenance staff asking for help getting the supplies they need.

“If the work order is put in and the workers can't get the supplies, then the building can start decaying,” Phyllis Wright said.

While the supply chain problems are a recent headache, they’re compounding long-standing issues with school maintenance.

A review by a Maryland state agency says those problems are of particular concern in Prince George’s County, which was rated among the state's worst in maintenance assessment effectiveness.

Meanwhile in Virginia, a newly released state report shows almost half of all buildings are more than 50 years old and following renovations, HVAC repair and replacement projects were among schools' most cited needs.

Congress set aside billions of dollars in an emergency COVID-19 bill for schools to share and use for maintenance needs, including for air systems.

But people like Anderson say cash only goes so far.

“The bottom line is I have to get the parts in order to fix, complete the job,” he said.

In a statement Wednesday, a Prince George's County schools spokeswoman said, "COVID-19 has presented a number of obstacles" for the district, from a labor shortage and illness to building material shortages that have affected HVAC and plumbing projects, in particular. The spokesperson said the district has added more contractors "but the impact persists despite our efforts."

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