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Amid the heatwave, millions of students are returning to schools without decent A/C

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

As this summer of record-breaking heat waves drags on, millions of students are returning to school in buildings that don't have good or any air conditioning. NPR's Sequoia Carrillo reports on how the heat can influence learning.

SEQUOIA CARRILLO, BYLINE: Eric Hitchner doesn't have air conditioning in his Philadelphia classroom.

ERIC HITCHNER: I'm on the fourth floor of a 111-year-old building. Heat rises.

CARRILLO: But he does have a smart board, a fancy one that the school invested in during COVID. It tells him the temperature and humidity of the room.

HITCHNER: Those things are not inexpensive. I would have allocated that money for air conditioning, but nobody asked me.

CARRILLO: He's clocked temperatures as high as 93 degrees. Even when it isn't that hot outside, his classroom in Building 21, where he teaches high school English, still overheats.

HITCHNER: I think in September, it's 68 to 72 degrees all day. It is 86 degrees in my classroom and 65% humidity.

CARRILLO: This year the school district of Philadelphia opted to start after Labor Day, a different approach than past years. The district says the decision was made to, quote, "reduce the likelihood that extreme temperatures would impact" their instruction. Hitchner's school is one of an estimated 36,000 public schools nationwide without adequate AC. That's according to a 2020 report from the Government Accountability Office. Many schools know it's a problem, but other things get in the way. Building 21 got AC units for every classroom years ago.

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

CARRILLO: Jackie Nowicki, a director at the GAO who oversaw the report, says her team found similar things while collecting data and visiting schools for the study. She recalls one Maryland district.

JACKIE NOWICKI: The district had refitted some of its schools with air conditioning, but they didn't update the pipes and insulation that were serving the HVAC systems. And so that caused moisture and condensation problems in the buildings. And so those school officials were concerned that the moisture and condensation could lead to air quality and mold problems. But to remedy those issues would cost over a million dollars for each building.

CARRILLO: The GAO conducted a nationally representative survey and visited 55 schools in 16 districts. They set out to look at the state of public schools, but the main complaint that kept coming up - heating, ventilation and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems. They found that an estimated 41% of districts needed to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half of their schools.

NOWICKI: You know, if basic health and safety systems like plumbing and air conditioning and ventilation are failing, that should set off alarm bells for people.

CARRILLO: Kate King, the head of the National Association of School Nurses, says AC or not, they have seen a higher rate of heat-related illness from students in the past few years.

KATE KING: We see that not infrequently, especially kids wearing their new fall school clothes, which are heavy and sweatery (ph), in 90-degree heat and then going out and running around on the playground.

CARRILLO: King, who is also a school nurse in Columbus, Ohio, says she's always focused on keeping an eye out for students with chronic conditions.

KING: Kids with asthma, with sickle cell. Extreme temperatures can precipitate attacks - kids with seizure disorders, even kiddos with diabetes because when they get dehydrated, it's, you know, a different ballgame.

CARRILLO: But 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. Every day, she oversees a 30-minute recess period for her kids at Aventura Community School in southeast Nashville.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Inaudible).

CARRILLO: They've been in school since early August, with temperatures between 90 and a hundred degrees outside every day.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Inaudible).

CARRILLO: She calls them back into the classroom...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Where's my water bottle?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: Wait. Where's my water bottle?

CARRILLO: ...And has the difficult task of getting them to focus for a math lesson.

DAMARIS ZAMUDIO-GALVAN: All of them just look completely worn out and miserable. And I always feel terrible because they're so tiny.

CARRILLO: She's had to get creative to keep them focused. All of the kids have to fill up their water bottles and rehydrate when they get inside, and then they take deep breaths to cool down. Sequoia Carrillo, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOWBUDDYFAMOUS SONG, "PURGATORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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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