Original publication by Laura Meckler and Anna Phillips for washingtonpost.com on 4 June 2022
With no air conditioning and no money to install it, districts are sending students home
Temperatures kept rising in Philadelphia and Baltimore. Finally, it was just too hot to keep students in classrooms without air conditioning. On Tuesday, both systems let students out early.
For Principal Richard M. Gordon IV, it was just another early-summer day in the halls of his West Philadelphia high school, where sweltering temperatures, high humidity and a lack of ventilation made classrooms so uncomfortable that students could barely sit still.
“Can I honestly say effective learning is happening in my building? I can’t,” said Gordon, the principal of Paul Robeson High School.
Climate change poses a growing threat to American schools. Regions where extreme heat was once rare — from the Northeast to the Pacific Northwest — now periodically find their buildings unbearably hot as spring turns to summer and again when classes resume in August or September.
In much of the South, air conditioning has long been a necessity, and schools are typically outfitted with centralized systems, although rising temperatures may require upgrades.
But in places such as Philadelphia, air conditioning was a luxury decades ago, when most school buildings were constructed. Perhaps there was a hot day in mid-June or an uncomfortable swelter in early September. They were flukes.
No more. Urban areas, in particular, tend to have a dangerous combination of older buildings, less money to upgrade them and concentrated heat. Designed to maximize space in crowded environments, urban schools often lack green space and shade. Asphalt often covers their playgrounds and other open spaces, radiating heat during the summer.
A study by the Government Accountability Office found that about 41 percent of public school districts in the United States need to update or replace the heating, cooling and ventilation systems in at least half of their schools. That represents about 36,000 schools nationwide.
The GAO pointed to a Michigan school district where 60 percent of schools lack air conditioning and extreme heat has forced the district to change its schedule. It also cited a Maryland district that botched its air conditioning retrofit in some schools, causing moisture and condensation problems that officials estimate could cost $1 million per building to correct.
Heat inhibits learning. In a study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior in 2020, researchers found that students scored worse on standardized exams for every additional day of 80-degree or higher temperatures. The study also found that in the United States, being exposed to higher temperatures mainly impaired the learning of Black and Latino students, who are less likely to have air conditioning at school and at home.
Experts say the problem is only becoming worse. The past seven years have, in succession, been the seven hottest years on record. Last summer was tied for the hottest on record with the Dust Bowl year of 1936.
The suffering is especially acute in cities, which are often significantly warmer than suburbs because of how the built environment amplifies heat — and because racist policies pushed developers to concentrate highways and industry in neighborhoods where people of color lived. Poor and minority neighborhoods that lack trees but have an abundance of pavement, parking lots, large buildings and other heat-absorbing surfaces bear the brunt.
Many cities have seen a rising number of days when the temperature hit 90 degrees or higher in May and June, when schools are operating, according to a Washington Post analysis. Philadelphia averaged four such days in 1970; now the figure is eight. In Baltimore, it went from six to 10; in Denver, from six to 11; and in Cleveland, from one to four. Portland, Ore., now averages three days over 90, up from one in 1970.
A decade ago, school districts canceled schools for heat an average of three or four days per year, according to research by Paul Chinowsky, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Colorado who led a study last year of schools and rising temperatures for the firm Resilient Analytics, which consults for governments and NGOs. That figure has about doubled, to six or seven days annually.
Chinowsky’s study also estimated that by 2025, more than 13,700 schools will need to install air conditioning, and an additional 13,500 will need to upgrade existing systems. Nationally, that amounts to about 1 in 4 public schools.
“You’re looking at hundreds of millions of dollars for these school districts to upgrade all their schools,” Chinowsky said.
Teachers push back
In New York and New Jersey, teachers unions are pushing for state laws to address what they say are intolerable classroom temperatures. A bill that’s been floating around Albany for several years would require schools that hit 82 degrees to take steps to relieve extreme heat, and a classroom that reached 88 degrees couldn’t be used. In New Jersey, lawmakers have been trying for a decade to pass a bill requiring districts to maintain comfortable classroom temperatures.
“It is an investment we simply cannot afford to put off any longer,” said Steven Baker, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association. “Go into any 7-Eleven in New Jersey, and you’ll see that it is air-conditioned. If we can do that in the places that we run into for five minutes to buy Slurpees and lottery tickets, we can do it in the schools where our children spend hours every day learning.”
In New Jersey, rising temperatures also have made it increasingly difficult for school districts to keep students in classrooms for the 180 days that state law requires, said Elisabeth Ginsburg, the executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, an advocacy group representing about 100 districts in the state.
She said most districts plan for several days of weather-related cancellations each year. But by the time May and June roll around, districts that have already used their bad-weather days are under pressure to keep students in school despite unseasonably high temperatures. Education advocates who argue for extending the school year run the risk of exposing students to even hotter weather.
City officials also are frustrated. On Tuesday, when Philadelphia schools closed early because of heat, city council member Helen Gym vented her frustration on Twitter.
“Teaching in these conditions is untenable. Learning in these conditions is unbearable. We can’t allow whether or not your school is equipped for AC to dictate the quality of your education,” she wrote.
And in D.C., city council member Robert C. White Jr., a candidate for mayor, voiced concern about the heat’s impact on schools. “[P]arents and teachers are sending us SOS tweets about hot classrooms & broken HVAC systems,” he tweeted Wednesday. “It is unacceptable that our students, teachers & administrators are dealing with this.”
If it’s steamy outside of Erica Weisfelner’s classroom in Farmingdale, N.Y., it’s a safe bet that it’s at least 80 degrees inside her cinder-block walls. The elementary school art teacher’s un-air-conditioned room on Long Island is swampy this time of year. Sheets of paper stick together. Oil pastels turn to mush in her student’s hands. The Wikki Stix projects made of yarn and wax melt together.
“I have 500 students who pass through my room each week, and when it is uncomfortable in here, it’s like trying to stop wet noodles from sticking to the wall,” she said.
On suffocating days, it’s “lights off, free draw,” she said. It’s not her first choice, but it’s the only option when it’s over 90 degrees inside and heat is turning the tempera paints strange colors.
“This is a problem for the whole Northeast,” she said. “We’re now starting to get hot and muggy days even in late April.”
In Oxnard, Calif., voters approved a $350 million bond measure in 2018 for the main purpose of installing air conditioning in every high school. It would not have been necessary a decade ago in this coastal district, said Oxnard Union High School District Superintendent Tom McCoy.
“We’re only a mile from the ocean,” he said.
Now, McCoy said, the district monitors daily air-temperature data and dismisses students early during heat waves.
Katherine Holden, 44, grew up in Ashland, Ore., and can’t remember ever feeling like she was baking in school. Now she’s the principal of a middle school, and it’s increasingly hot for the half of her campus that lacks air conditioning.
“There’s days when teachers will literally say it’s too hot to do anything productive,” she said. The sun beats into southern-facing classrooms, she said, and “heats them up like little sun rooms.”
In New Jersey, schools without air conditioning in classrooms are offering students water and rotating them through air-conditioned libraries and auditoriums for relief.
Before the pandemic encouraged social distancing, it was common for teachers to combine classes, packing dozens of students into the coolest rooms. Closing schools or dismissing halfway through the day is a last resort, but it’s becoming more common, said Ginsburg, of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.
“There has to be the will to improve these facilities,” she said. “The more that climate change advances, perhaps the will may be there.”
Valerie Wilson, the business administrator for Newark’s public schools, said there’s little public understanding of the high costs and logistical obstacles that districts such as hers would have to overcome to air-condition all their schools. Most of Newark’s 63 school buildings were built in the 19th century, she said, and the majority of classrooms are not air-conditioned. The oldest school, Lafayette Street School, predates Abraham Lincoln’s presidency.
The expectation that every student will have a laptop and every teacher an interactive whiteboard has already strained these schools’ electrical capacity, Wilson said. Simply rewiring century-old buildings to accommodate air-conditioning units would cost millions of dollars, she said.
Under New Jersey’s system, Newark’s board of education cannot ask voters to approve a construction bond to pay for air conditioning. It is wholly dependent on the state for capital funding.
The federal covid relief funding for schools is one source being used for HVAC upgrades in many districts and could total $40 billion nationally, according to AASA, the School Superintendents Association. About half the districts and charter schools sampled by Burbio, a data firm, planned to spend some of that money on heating, cooling and ventilation.
In White Plains, N.Y., Cayne Letizia, a member of the school board, recalls parents coming to him five years ago concerned about the heat and demanding the district add air conditioning. Their concern: It was hot and, with climate change, set to get hotter. Some offered to pay or raise money for window units, he said.
It wasn’t that simple. Schools needed to have their electrical capacity upgraded to handle the additional load. At first, the district had funding only to cool select portions of its buildings. Now, using a combination of federal, state and local dollars, the district is preparing to install air conditioning throughout its schools, Letizia said.
The district needed voter approval to use capital funds for the project, he said, and older voters would often note that they never had air conditioning when they were in school. Why was it needed now? Officials had to explain that it is getting hotter.
Jason Samenow contributed to this report.