US teachers demand relief from classroom extreme heat

Students walk on the campus of Tennessee State University, a public university and HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., September 19, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Wurm

Students walk on the campus of Tennessee State University, a public university and HBCU in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S., September 19, 2023. REUTERS/Kevin Wurm

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Extreme heat is already disrupting U.S. classrooms this school year - here's how teachers and unions are fighting back

  • Schools forced to adjust start of school year due to heat
  • Air conditioning central to Columbus, OH teachers strike
  • Teachers, students eye broader resilience measures

RICHMOND, Virginia – On hot days at Baltimore City College High School in Maryland, indoor temperatures can be 10 degrees warmer in the classrooms than outside, according to Franca Muller Paz, a Spanish teacher.

So when outside temperatures topped out at close to 100 F (37.8C) last month, Baltimore was forced to switch to virtual learning for classrooms like Muller Paz's that lacked air conditioning.

"It was obviously not ideal. We wish we had air conditioning so that we could get better learning outcomes," she said. "We know that the students do better when they're in person."

Muller Paz said teachers had brought up such conditions "time and time again" during contract talks, but said the district had resisted getting A/C into all schools.

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"Especially as temperatures continue to rise, this is just a basic expectation that every school should be able to meet, which is having a climate where students can actually learn," she said.

Other schools across the United States were also forced to alter their hours at the start of the current academic year due to extreme heat as temperatures continued to break records.

With the effects of climate change expected to worsen, demands for protection against extreme temperatures through "climate controlled" classrooms are increasingly playing a role in negotiations with teachers' unions.

"When teachers go to the bargaining table, we do have the potential power to put those things in a contract and ultimately improve conditions and experiences for everybody in the building," said Leslie Blatteau, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers.

The unions, still grappling with fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and associated air circulation problems at the nation's schools, say such issues will only become more prominent as the climate crisis worsens.

"You can't have children learning in saunas, and that's what's happening in certain situations," said Karen White, deputy executive director of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers' union in the country.

How hot is too hot?

Across the country, teachers are increasingly demanding climate-related protections, like air conditioning and better ventilation systems as part of contract negotiations, and those issues have taken center stage in some recent labor disputes.

Teachers in Portland, Oregon voted this month to authorize a strike that could start on Nov. 1. In addition to wages, classroom conditions - including temperatures - are also a major issue in ongoing contract talks.

Teachers in Columbus, Ohio, where August temperatures can approach 90 degrees F (32.2 C), went on strike last year before agreeing to a new contract that included annual pay rises and a stipulation that all schools in the district must have air conditioning by the 2025-2026 school year.

Elsewhere, in Polk County, Florida, parts of which saw highs approaching 100 degrees F (37.8C) in August, the local NEA affiliate filed a grievance with the school district in August over broken or malfunctioning air conditioning units.

The district acknowledged a "surge" in the number of A/C issues at the time and pointed out that school districts across the country were in similar situations.

In San Jose, California, the local NEA affiliate negotiated language in a recent contract that no employee should be required to work in a classroom that is less than 59 degrees F (15 C) or greater than 82 degrees F (27.8 C).

"The unions and NEA members are stepping up into a space where they're using their voice to advocate for their students," White said.

Meanwhile, some teachers have been resorting to crowdsourcing funds to get air conditioning in their classrooms - continuing a longstanding practice of having to cover their own job-related school supplies.

"A lot of people buy materials out of pocket to try to control the temperature better in their room," said Lauren Bianchi, who teaches sociology to 17 and 18-year-olds in Chicago, Illinois.

A spokesperson for Chicago Public Schools said the "vast majority" of the cooling systems at the more than 500 district-run schools held up during the August heat waves. All classrooms are supposed to have air conditioning.

"In those cases when there was a power outage or a unit or a central air system did not function as intended, our team worked quickly to respond and address the situation," the spokesperson said.

Since 2017, the number of schools in the Baltimore city system without air conditioning will have dropped from 75 to eight by the end of the school year as officials move forward on a longer-term plan to improve new units in older buildings and construct new ones, according to the city public school system.

'Green New Deal' for schools?

Beyond more immediate or short-term fixes, teachers and students are also casting an eye toward broader measures on how to make schools more climate resilient in the long run.

Congressional Democrats last month rolled out the Green New Deal for Schools Act, which would provide $1.6 trillion over the next decade to upgrade public school buildings throughout the country and help cut emissions, among other things.

"I think adults really like to say, the things we're asking for are too big or too expensive or not quote-unquote, politically possible," said Adah Crandall, 17, an activist with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-oriented climate group that has endorsed the bill.

"And our generation is not willing to sit and wait for our futures to become quote-unquote politically possible."

For now, teachers will continue to push for both climate controlling equipment like air conditioning and broader resilience measures, including green school buildings, gardens, green space, and classes to accommodate training in jobs like solar engineering, Bianchi said.

"As we get ready to head into bargaining for our next contract in 2024, we are pushing for not just repairs, but basically bringing our school district into this century and having schools that are going to sustain communities through the climate crisis," she said.

(Reporting by David Sherfinski; Editing by Amruta Byatnal and Jon Hemming.)

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