Hot Classrooms Signal a Fundamental Capital Improvement Problem

Last year’s Chicago Teachers Union strike was prolonged in part by the teachers’ demand that the district begin installing air conditioning in the city’s schools. As we pass the first anniversary of the day the strike was called, we’re beginning to see the climate change inside the classroom.

Last week a number of regions around the country were gripped by a heatwave, and many schools without air conditioning were forced to either shorten their days or close down altogether in order to prevent heat-related illnesses in students and staff. School closures have been reported in Baltimore as well as all over the Midwest.

It turned out that Chicago was not immune. As the temperature climbed into the 90s, elementary schools in Oak Park had to resort to measures like rotating kids in and out of classrooms that had a cooling system installed as well as handing out cold water and ice pops to everyone in the building.

Thanks to a donation by a local company, officials were able to distribute more than 17,000 hand-held fans to schools around the city, and while those provided some relief they created their own predictable problems. According to Lauren FitzPatrick of the Chicago Sun-Times, at least one first-grader at Smyser Elementary Schools – a building that is only air-conditioned in the classrooms used by upperclassmen – got her hair caught in the fan shortly after receiving it, forcing her teacher to administer an impromptu haircut.

This unexpected bit of black comedy only highlights how absolutely critical the situation has become. Liz Bowie of The Baltimore Sun writes that city’s schools had to close two hours early this Wednesday because the buildings were not equipped to deal with above-90-degree heat.

All after-school and night activities are canceled in both school systems. Baltimore City canceled all pre-K programs for the afternoon.

“The superintendent looked at what was predicted for today and decided to make the call early so that parents can make plans for child care,” said Baltimore County school spokesman Mychael Dickerson. The forecast, he said, calls for the heat index to be between 87 and 90 degrees by 10 a.m. and between 92 and 98 degrees by 2 p.m.

Forty percent of the county’s schools do not have air conditioning.

“Because these schools are in all geographical regions there are logistical challenges, such as transportation, that make it difficult to only close the impacted schools,” Dickerson said. Buses would have to do their routes twice in order to pick up children from non-air-conditioned schools and then air-conditioned schools two hours later.

Similar stories are coming from schools in Oklahoma, where a number of classrooms in elementary schools in Claremont have been operating without air conditioning for the past two weeks. California hasn’t escaped the impact of hot weather either, with students in non-cooled classrooms getting ill despite being given ice drinks and cooling packs.

The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for the southern flank of Michigan, including metro Detroit, which will run through Wednesday night as temperatures are slated to reach a sizzling 96 degrees Fahrenheit (36 degrees Celsius).

“We thought the dog days of summer were behind us, but we’re having this last high heat event with temperatures above normal,” Matt Mosteiko, a Weather Service meteorologist in Michigan, told Reuters.
Detroit officials called on residents to stay indoors and said they were opening up air-conditioned cooling centers for sunbaked locals, NBC station WDIV in Detroit reported.

While one might think that this could all be a temporary hiccup, which will resolve itself after the temperature inevitably falls, the problem actually goes deeper than that. Here, at Education News, on almost daily basis, we get press releases from states, districts, schools or the federal government touting ways in which they’re investing in new technology like computers, tablets and smartphones. About how wiring up a school for the internet could push education into the future. And that is, indeed, true. But what use is the internet in the classroom, if that classroom is too hot to support learning?

If California – which a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found grossly underspends on school facilities, and where voter initiatives on capital school improvements routinely fail with the voters – is any guide, officials are just unwilling to spend money on getting schools into the 21st century by repairing classrooms, upgrading electrical systems and installing air conditioning so students wouldn’t again get heat-sick while using their iPads.