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What are Cleveland schools doing about buildings without air conditioning?

Glenville High School on the east side of Cleveland had to close temporarily due to excessive heat in late August.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
Glenville High School on the east side of Cleveland had to shift temporarily to remote learning due to excessive heat in late August.

Ten Cleveland Metropolitan School District schools closed temporarily last week and shifted to remote learning due to high temperatures outside. All of those buildings have either no air conditioning, or only in parts of the building.

CMSD CEO Eric Gordon says the school district is looking to address the issue by using American Rescue Plan Act funding to buy portable air conditioning units for those buildings. He says it won’t be a quick or cheap fix, considering some buildings will need electrical rewiring to support powering those units.

The other fix could involve complete rebuilding or renovation of those buildings in the coming years, but that will be dependent on funding. Gordon said he was “very thankful” the school district did not have to use a “calamity day” this week, and instead could just move to remote learning because each student in the district has been provided with a computer.

But CMSD isn’t alone in dealing with high temperatures in the classroom. Every year, schools in Cleveland and across the country must either close or move to remote learning due to high temperatures making it difficult to learn.

More than a third of public schools in the U.S. reported having a fair or poor heating, cooling or ventilation system, according to a 2012-2013 report on school conditions from the National Center for Education Statistics. And the hotter it is in a classroom, the less students learn overall, and the worse people perform mentally in general.

The Shaker Heights Schools district does not have air conditioning in seven of its eight schools, spokesperson Scott Stephens said, and part of that is due to

"Our electrical grid cannot support putting window units in all rooms," he said. "Some of our schools are near or even more than 100 years old."

Stephens said his district is has been working on long-term facilities planning in recent years and hopes the board will adopt a plan sometime this spring, which could mean updates to their aged facilities.

Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, says the current teacher’s contract with CMSD puts the acceptable temperature range in classrooms between 60 and 90 degrees. But it can be hard to teach and learn in 80-plus-degree temperatures, she said. And the heat can make students and teachers with medical conditions feel sick.

“We have teachers report that there are students that can’t keep their heads up in the class, it gets very, very sweaty, and we have some students that vomit when it gets to be too warm,” she said. “It’s kind of an unbearable situation in those classrooms when it gets too warm.”

Dina Hoeynck left her job earlier this year with CMSD, and said part of her reasoning — among others — was the conditions in her classroom. She worked in CMSD's New Tech West (which was one of the buildings closed last week), where she did have a portable air conditioning unit in her classroom.

"But it did just an okay job," she explained. "A, it wasn't designed to be installed in the type of windows we had, also I had a makeshift cardboard insert that I created to seal out the outside air. And B, the classroom is physically large and when you load it up with bodies and have this one sad little air conditioner, it just couldn't keep up."

Hoeynck said it created a difficult learning and teaching environment for her and her students.

“I get heat-induced migraines so if I am in a really hot room I can become dizzy,” she said. “…It’s not great. The students are very lethargic in the room, they don’t want to participate, most of them. When it’s really hot in the classroom a teacher will sometimes just turn off the lights and have the kids put their heads down and rest.”

Hoeynck said she believes the range of acceptable temperatures in the classroom should be adjusted so that teachers and students aren’t working and learning in 85-plus-degree temperatures.

Obrenski noted the temperature range is a “negotiated” amount.

“We will continue to work with the district to try to make the working and learning conditions for our educators and our students as manageable as possible,” she said.

Gordon said the district carefully watches weather conditions from the National Weather Service to monitor when it might consider taking action on schooling related to hot temperatures.

“We do have to define the definition between safe and uncomfortable, unfortunately,” he said.

Gordon explained that the district has rebuilt a significant number of schools over the last 25 years – and all new schools have central air conditioning - but, the earliest schools rebuilt through that initiative are now starting to show signs of aging.

Obrenski noted that as global temperatures increase, schools will increasingly have to come up with plans to deal with hot classrooms.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.