WATERBURY, Conn. (WTNH) — Connecticut schools are set to receive millions of dollars in federal grants to improve their indoor air quality.

Educators, who have been fighting for better air quality for decades, said the COVID-19 pandemic created more urgency.  

Joanie Amato, a West Haven High School teacher and a representative for the American Federation of Teachers and School Nurses, said Connecticut leaders must protect kids and educators from airborne illnesses.   

“They want to keep their children safe,” Amato said. “They want to have a clean, healthy school. The reality is it’s been neglected for so long and, financially, districts can’t do it alone.”  

State leaders announced the first round of grant money on Wednesday, with $56 million allocated to better air quality in public schools.  

It’s part of Gov. Ned Lamont’s proposed $450 million plan for schools, which includes both state bonding and federal money.  

Kate Dias, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said keeping classrooms clean impacts students’ performance.  

“If we take care of those spaces, we allow the adults to thrive, we allow the children to thrive, we cut down on absences,” Dias said. 

Leaders said asthma is the leading cause of absenteeism in the U.S. About 10.5 million school days are lost each year due to related illnesses.   

Connecticut is above the national average, with 15% of children diagnosed with asthma.  

“It is our responsibility as a society to take care of them, to make sure they have the best learning environment,” said Dr. Manisha Juthani, Connecticut Department of Public Health commissioner. “And it is our responsibility to make sure educators are equally taken care of.”

The new grants will upgrade HVAC systems, replace air filters, train maintenance staff, and pay for upkeep.  

“This has got to be a safety zone,” Lamont said. “Schools have to be a place where kids know they can relax. Their parents know that their kids are safe.”

Leaders said another round of grants will be awarded in early 2024.