By Matt Barnum
Students in most of the country’s largest school districts don’t have to sit in sweltering classrooms as they try to figure out the mystery of physics, master the building blocks of reading, or decipher the meaning of Macbeth.
Most, but not all, of those sizable districts — stretching from Long Beach, California, to Philadelphia — are air-conditioned, according to responses to public records requests filed by The 74. Forty-five of the nation’s 50 biggest school districts replied to public information queries about whether their classrooms had air conditioning, with 34 reporting that all or virtually all of them were.
But in 11 of those districts, several in cities or towns where temperatures frequently reach 90 degrees or higher, many classrooms and schools are not. In some of those places, temperatures spike at the beginning and end of the year, but in a few, it stays warm year-round.
One of them, New York City, where 1.1 million students attend the nation’s largest public school system, announced in April that it would spend $29 million to air-condition every classroom by 2022.
“More than a quarter of the city’s classrooms, about 11,000 classrooms, don’t have air conditioning,” New York City Councilman Brad Lander told WCBS radio in the early spring. “And you know, on a cool day like today, that’s OK, but on an increasing number of days in May and June and September, it’s just too hot to learn that kids can’t focus and concentrate.”
In Hawaii, which is a single school district in the state closest to the equator, just 40 percent of classes have air conditioning, while in Philadelphia, 60 percent do. In Milwaukee, only 17 percent of schools are fully equipped with AC, and in Baltimore City Public Schools, 55 percent of schools are.
Access to air conditioning in the largest school districts is not likely to be representative of the country’s schools as a whole. More than half of the top 50 districts can be found in the South, where air-conditioned classrooms are all but a necessity.
Florida alone accounts for 10 of them because its school districts encompass entire counties. Few Midwestern districts make the list based on their size, and no Northwestern or New England school districts do.
Public records requests also can’t reveal whether or how well classroom AC units or school-wide central air systems work, especially when they are needed most.
National data is scarce, but one 2014 survey found that in about 30 percent of school buildings, staff rated the access to air conditioning as fair or poor.
The issue is not just a matter of student or teacher comfort, nor is the evidence only anecdotal. Recent research from Harvard University shows that students score lower on tests taken on very hot days and have a harder time learning overall during school years with higher-than-average temperatures.
“Taking an exam on a 90 [degree] day relative to a 72 [degree] day results in a reduction in exam performance that is equivalent to a quarter of the Black-White [student] achievement gap,” the Harvard study finds.
Similarly, teachers say that a lack of air conditioning makes it more difficult for them to teach and for students to learn.
English teacher Bobbi O’Brien said her job at Baltimore’s Patterson High School is much tougher on steamy days.
“I have more kids who will put their heads down, they’ll be grouchier, less compliant, they don’t want to do anything,” she said.
AC access spotty outside the South
The Southern districts surveyed, including the 10 in Florida, six in Texas, four in Georgia, and three in North Carolina, are all fully air conditioned. Other large districts that are at 100 percent AC include Los Angeles; Clark County, Nevada, which covers Las Vegas; and Montgomery County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the temperatures are seasonal but the residents are among the country’s wealthiest.
In addition to New York City, Hawaii, Philadelphia, Baltimore City, and Milwaukee, the big 11 districts that are not fully air conditioned are Baltimore County, which encompasses the city’s surrounding suburbs; Chicago; Denver; Detroit; Jefferson County, Colorado, in suburban Denver; and Long Beach.
The 74 was not able to obtain information from five districts: Broward County, Florida; Gwinnett County, Georgia; Prince William County, Virginia; San Diego, and Shelby County, Tennessee.
Districts differed in how they reported their access to AC. Of those that reported less than 100 percent, eight did so by school, and three by classroom. A handful of the 34 districts that reported being virtually 100 percent air-conditioned flagged a few exceptions including converted classrooms, locker rooms or gyms.
In some districts, cooling is prevalent though not universal. New York City, Chicago, Baltimore County, and Jefferson County, all had AC in more than three-quarters of classrooms or schools. In New York City, which has more than 1,800 schools, 1 in 4 classrooms is not air-conditioned.
Elsewhere, air conditioning is more scarce. In Detroit, a city whose public schools are in notoriously decrepit condition, just 1 in 3 schools is fully equipped with AC. Temperatures in the city regularly hit the 80s and 90s between April and September.
Similarly, Denver has full air conditioning in just 43 percent of its schools and partial in 15 percent. The last day of school for city students is in early June, a month where the average high is over 80 degrees.
Perhaps the place with the warmest weather and the least access to air conditioning is Hawaii, where just 40 percent of classrooms are cooled. Throughout the year, daily temperature highs hover between the upper 70s and upper 80s.
The state is currently in the midst of an initiative to add AC to 1,000 classrooms, but even if completed, still fewer than 50 percent of them would be air-conditioned. The plan ran into a major obstacle last year when bids came back far higher than the $100 million budgeted. To date, the state has ordered nearly 1,000 units, but only about 200 have been installed.
“These companies saw $100 million and said ‘$100,000 per classroom, that’s what we’ll charge,’” Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, who has been critical of the contracting process, told Honolulu Civil Beat earlier this year. “These companies are profiting off of the sweat from our children.”
Rosenlee has suggested that island schools consider heat days — similar to snow days — when classes are canceled during extremely hot weather, according to the station. Officials in Fort Collins, Colorado, closed school a few years ago when temperatures in their un-air-conditioned classrooms reached 96 or 97 degrees and school administrators determined it was “too miserable to learn.”
One Fort Collins parent called the decision to call off classes “ridiculous.”
‘I really dread school based on the weather’
The high school where O’Brien teaches ninth-grade English is one of 76 out of 168 Baltimore City schools that lack AC. O’Brien said where her classroom is located relative to the sun means the temperature in the room is often substantially warmer than it is outside.
“I really dread school based on the weather, especially in the spring and in the fall,” she said. “If it’s really hot … certainly [student] engagement goes down.”
Anyone who’s felt their own irritability rise with the thermometer wouldn’t be surprised to hear O’Brien say there tend to be more disciplinary issues on hot days, particularly when there’s been a string of them in a row.
Some teachers in her school have bought window air-conditioning units with their own money. O’Brien has tried to make the room as cool as possible, by setting up three or four fans and a donated standalone air conditioner designed for a small bedroom. The school, she acknowledged, says teachers are not supposed to use any sort of AC unit or more than two fans because of the amount of electricity they require.
On a 90-degree day, she said, her room can reach over 100 degrees.
“It’s just miserable,” she said.
Sometimes when the weather gets too hot, Baltimore City schools let students out a few hours early.
In addition to Montgomery County, two other more affluent Maryland school districts — Anne Arundel and Prince George’s counties — reported universal access to air conditioning. Baltimore County has air conditioning in 77 percent of its schools.
Some teachers in schools without air conditioning try to raise private dollars to fund it.
One teacher at a Brooklyn high school that lacks cooling in many classrooms said he is planning to try and get contributions through DonorsChoose — a site where teachers can solicit donations for classroom needs — in order to install air conditioning. The teacher spoke on condition of anonymity after he said he requested approval from the New York City Department of Education to talk to a reporter but was denied.
Of course, there is no guarantee that raising private money will be successful — and some schools may have more or less ability to tap into such funds, since districts in wealthy areas have better-funded PTAs.
Meanwhile, the Brooklyn teacher has found the process a bureaucratic headache even to get a price estimate for installing window AC units, which have to go through a specific vendor that contracts with city schools and then be approved by DOE.
In light of New York City’s recent pledge to air condition all its classrooms by 2022, the teacher is deciding whether to proceed with efforts to raise private funds. In the meantime, he said, teacher and students alike suffer.
"[There are] several months where [the heat] just saps the energy from the kids and even the teacher,” he said. “I'm sure that has an effect on learning."
A DOE spokesperson pointed to the city’s plan and noted that currently “95 percent of New York City school buildings have air conditioning in all or some instructional spaces.”
The average New York City school is 65 years old, and many are much older, which can be a barrier to installing air conditioning. Nationally, about 1 in 5 school facilities has gone for 35 years since a major renovation or since it was originally built.
Heat rises, test scores fall
Research confirms the experience of many teachers: Hot weather really can have an impact on how much students learn and how they perform on standardized exams.
That’s the conclusion of an extensive study conducted by Jisung Park, a Harvard graduate student. Park examined New York City students and their performance on state Regents tests, which students typically take in June and must pass in order to graduate high school. He relied on an extensive data set, running from 1999 to 2014.
“It turns out that temperature on the day you take your exam seems to matter a lot,” Park said.
In fact, students were about 12 percent more likely to fail the test if they took it on a 90-degree day versus a 72-degree day. Park also showed that this had long-run effects since the Regents carry such serious consequences: Those taking the exam on a hot day were 2 percentage points less likely to get a high school diploma.
These results show that one-day test performance can be affected by temperature, but can overall learning be harmed by heat? Yes, said Park.
“Years in which there were more hot days during the school year, students seem to have learned less, at least as measured by these end-of-year exam scores,” he said, though he noted that these results are less conclusive.
In short, the temperature on both the day of an exam and the days preceding it during the school year can help or hurt student performance.
The assumption might be, then, that the students fortunate enough to take their Regents exam on a hot day in one of the city’s air-conditioned classrooms would score much higher. Park was able to compare how heat affected exam results in schools with AC against those without it. Students in cooled classrooms were somewhat less susceptible to the impacts of temperature on test performance, but the effects weren’t big. More New York City classrooms are air-conditioned today than the 62 percent that were in 2012.
Park said he was somewhat surprised by this part of his findings but said it may simply be a result of limited data — he could look only at whether a school reported having air conditioning, not whether it actually worked, was regularly used, covered all classrooms, or consisted of window units rather than central air.
“I had expected air conditioning to make a bigger difference,” he said. “On the other hand, the data that I’m using is quite crude.”
Another explanation is that window ACs may come with drawbacks such as noise and reduced air quality.
In general, Park said, there is remarkably little data about the prevalence, use, and quality of air conditioning in schools across the country. Few districts provide publicly available information on the topic.
“Among the research community, school air conditioning information has been tough to come by,” he said. “There’s not as much documentation there as I had expected, given how potentially important the issue might be.”
This lack of information also leads Park to worry that air conditioning may be a source of inequity in schools without our even realizing it.
“If school AC penetration follows anything like a similar pattern to residential or commercial AC penetration in the U.S.,” he said, “it’s going to track … average income.”
The ideal would be to see more and better data on the topic gathered at the national level, Park said, particularly because the issue is increasingly critical as climate change threatens to increase the number of very hot days.
The last three consecutive years have been hottest on record.