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As classes resume in sweltering heat, many schools lack air conditioning

Protesters hold up signs outside of the Denver Public Schools administration building to demand equity for students attending classes in excessively hot classrooms.
Helen H. Richardson
The Denver Post via Getty Images
Protesters hold up signs outside of the Denver Public Schools administration building to demand equity for students attending classes in excessively hot classrooms.

Eric Hitchner teaches English on the fourth floor of a 111-year-old high school in Philadelphia. Come September, his classroom will be packed with a new crop of teenagers, but one thing will be the same: the lack of air conditioning.

It can get so hot in his room, he says, "no one wants to even move, let alone do some strenuous thinking."

He knows firsthand that even when the outside temperatures cool down, his classroom often doesn't. Last September, when it was in the low 70s in Philadelphia, it was 86 degrees inside.

His SmartBoard, an interactive teaching device that the school district bought with COVID relief money, tells him the exact temperature and humidity level. He's clocked it as high as 93 degrees.

"Those things are not inexpensive," he says. "I would have allocated that money for air conditioning. But nobody asked me."

Hitchner teaches in one of the estimated 36,000 public schools nationwide without adequate air conditioning. As temperatures keep rising around much of the country – July was the hottest month on recordin earth's history — schools are testing different approaches to beat the heat.

This year the Philadelphia school district is starting the school year later than normal. A decision that Oz Hill, the district's Chief Operating Officer, said was made to "reduce the likelihood that extreme temperatures would impact our ability to provide in-person instruction."

As in many districts, school leaders in Philadelphia know that inadequate AC is a problem, but finding solutions can be complicated. Hitchner's school, for example, was supposed to get AC years ago.

"We purchased them, we had them delivered. And then the school district told us that the electric grid couldn't take that," he says. "So they sat in storage for all those years and we've never had another one installed."

It happens more than Jackie Nowicki, a director at the Government Accountability Office, expected. Her team conducted a nationally representative survey and visited 55 schools in 16 districts to look at infrastructure needs. One complaint came up again and again: Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC).

The report, released in 2020, found that an estimated 41% of districts in the U.S. needed to update or replace HVAC in at least half their schools. Many put off repairs due to unforeseen consequences.

She recalls how one Maryland district had refitted its schools with air conditioning, but did not update the pipes and insulation that serviced the HVAC systems. The oversight led to moisture and condensation problems in the building.

"School officials were concerned that ... could lead to air quality and mold problems," she says. "But to remedy those issues would cost over $1,000,000 for each building."

Kate King, the head of the National Association of School Nurses, says her organization is always on alert for heat-related illness during the back-to-school season, but with higher temperatures this year it's top of mind: "Especially with kids wearing their new fall school clothes ... and then going out and running around on the playground."

King, a nurse for Columbus City Schools in Ohio, says she's always focused on keeping an eye out for students with chronic illnesses. Conditions like asthma, sickle cell, seizure disorders and diabetes can turn an uncomfortable situation – such as a hot classroom – into a dangerous one.

Beyond the health concerns, there are worries about learning loss, as well. A study out of Harvard in 2016 looked at data from students in New York City Public Schools. Out of 4.5 million exams taken by almost 1 million students over a decade, the study concluded that students are more likely to fail an exam on a 90-degree day than on a 72-degree day.

Sometimes, even when the classroom has AC, the temperatures are so hot outside that students lose out on learning time in order to cool off.

Damaris Zamudio-Galvan is a first grade teacher at Aventura Community School in southeast Nashville. She's been back in school since early August, with daily temperatures often between 90 and 100 degrees outside.

On one recent day, she faced the difficult task of getting her students to focus for a math lesson right after coming inside from the heat.

"All of them just look completely worn out and miserable," she said. "And I always feel terrible because they're so tiny."

She's had to get creative to keep them focused. There are a few rules: Each student must have to have a water bottle at all times. When they come back inside, they have to fill it up. And before they start their lesson, the whole class pauses for a moment to take some deep breaths.

Audio story produced by: Janet Woojeong Lee
Edited by: Steve Drummond

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.
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