By Jerell Blakeley
Frigid temperatures and frequent snow days are no surprise for public school employees and students during the winter months in the Garden State. However, the recent “bomb cyclone” that hit the Eastern Coast in the first days of January lived up to its impressive moniker, with communities from Maine to Florida slammed by sheets of ice, feet of snow and accompanying subzero temperatures.
With bizarre meteorological episodes becoming more common, thanks in part to climate change, public school employees and students continue to bear the brunt of extreme temperatures with increasing frequency. In many of New Jersey’s public school districts, buildings are no match for extreme hot or cold weather, with school leaders often left with no choice but to close the doors.
Comfortable temperatures are about more than comfort. Teaching, learning and health are likely to suffer if classrooms are too hot or cold. Staff and students may experience headaches, drowsiness and difficulty concentrating. Extreme temperatures can exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as asthma.
Cold weather brings its own challenges to school buildings. The freezing temperatures can wreak havoc on older heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems and pipes. A lack of heat in schools is usually associated with a temporary breakdown of heaters, boilers and radiators and difficulty getting them fixed in a timely manner. Without proper heating, schools are forced to close and students lose precious classroom time.
School closings in Camden highlight the significant challenges that many of New Jersey’s districts face. The recent spate of cold weather hit the Camden City School District especially hard, highlighting building design flaws and district described “persistent heating issues” in several schools. The inclement weather affected school operations in a diverse array of schools, from schools erected as recently as 1991 to schools built during the presidency of former New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson. In total, nearly a third of Camden’s schools were closed in January. R. T. Cream Family School is scheduled to be closed for the remainder of the 2017-18 academic year due to severe building damage caused by the bitter cold.
With the leadership of Camden Education Association President Dr. Keith Benson, CEA has made school health and safety an association priority, particularly as it relates to school building conditions caused by inclement weather.
“We have a pretty good idea that winter is coming every year,” Benson said. “It’s not a surprise or shock. If schools in Alaska and Canada can figure out how to weatherize schools for extreme temperatures, we can as well. Our students can’t afford to lose valuable learning time due to issues that can be solved with better planning.”
Benson played a major role in informing community and union members about the status of school closings and used social media to organize and inform stakeholders.
In many of New Jersey’s public school districts, buildings are no match for extreme hot or cold weather, with school leaders often left with no choice but to close the doors.
The New Jersey Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) standard, N.J.A.C. 12:100-13 (2007), sets benchmarks for indoor air quality in existing buildings occupied by public employees during their regular working hours. The Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health (PEOSH) IAQ standard is one of only a handful of state IAQ standards in the nation.
The IAQ standard requires every school district to have a written plan to comply with the IAQ standard and identify a “designated person” who is responsible for compliance. It requires the district to establish and follow a preventive maintenance schedule for heating and cooling systems. It requires the district to make sure the heating and cooling systems are in proper operating order when temperatures are outside of the range of 68 degrees F to 79 degrees F. Maintenance records must be kept for three years and must be available to employees and their unions.
In an era of increasing temperatures, longer summers, and harsher winters, the problem of extreme temperatures in the classroom won’t go away anytime soon. In fact, it will likely continue to get worse. We must ensure that classrooms are optimum learning environments.
The Healthy Schools Now coalition, of which NJEA is a member, supports A-665, which would require each board of education to adopt a policy establishing temperature control standards and guidelines for school district facilities. Additionally, the bill would:
• Require that a staff member is designated in each school building in the district to monitor compliance with the standards and initiate permitted corrective action.
• Establish a protocol to follow in instances where classroom temperatures are identified as being not conducive to learning.
• Identify what temperature control measures are permitted in accordance with local building and fire codes.
• Be informed by the IAQ Standard established by the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
• Require that corrective measures be addressed, where feasible, by action outlined in the IAQ Standard.
Passage of temperature control legislation would avoid the minute-by-minute waffling that too often occurs when districts are thinking of closing schools because of the weather. It would facilitate planning and make weather-related decision-making processes more transparent for all constituencies: parents, teachers, principals, administrators and students.
The old axiom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is appropriate when discussing how you and your local can address extreme temperatures and their impact on school buildings. The following steps are ways that your local association can address extreme temperatures:
• Sign and share the temperature control legislation petition with your members: njwec.org/2016/11/temperature-control-petition.
• Establish a districtwide Health and Safety team with regular meetings to proactively address facility issues.
• Ensure that district administrators are aware of and comply with the PEOSH IAQ standard.
• Launch a communication strategy to share pertinent weather-related issues to community stakeholders in a prompt manner.
• Join the Healthy Schools Now coalition to fight for policy and legislative changes for school health and safety issues on the state and local level.
Jerell Blakeley is a campaign organizer for the Healthy Schools Now Coalition and a staff member of the New Jersey Work Environment Council, which is a frequent partner with NJEA on school health and safety concerns. He previously taught civics and history at his alma mater, Trenton Central High School-West and served as a NJEA Organizational Development consultant. He may be reached at email@example.com.