By Dorothy Wigmore

Heat harms our minds and bodies. Yolanda Hernandez knows that from personal experience. So do other parents in New Brunswick’s public schools.

“My son had vomiting, fever, headaches; he didn’t want to go to that school anymore,” she says. That was her son’s experience in the 100-year-old Lincoln Elementary school three years ago. Then, only select rooms (e.g., for the principal and administrative staff) had air conditioning; more than half had none.

Hernandez started asking about air conditioning or ventilation.

“When the weather is very, very hot, they close the schools,” was the response, she says. “That’s not a solution.”

The message was “it costs too much.” The city school district’s business administrator and board secretary said in 2019 that it could be $500,000 each to upgrade the electrical capacity to run air conditioners in three old schools and more to buy the units and run them.

Why does heat matter?

Schools were not supposed to open without adequate ventilation in the pandemic.

Effective ventilation systems—often called heating, ventilation and air conditioning or HVAC systems—move air in and out of buildings. They provide fresh air, mix it with recirculated filtered air, and control temperature and humidity. They remove airborne hazards, such as SARS-CoV2, the virus which causes COVID-19. On its own, air conditioning is not ventilation. High efficiency air filtering units help clean the air but do not cool it.

Heat is a hazard, indoors or out. It is getting worse with the climate emergency.

Heat stress symptoms range from heat rash, headaches, fainting, nausea and fatigue to dehydration and death. The usual protections for outdoor workers—water, rest and shade—are necessary but not sufficient indoors.

“When it’s very hot, the kids don’t learn, they can’t focus,” Hernandez says. Studies back her up. “I’m thinking about the kids and the teachers and everybody in the building for six or seven hours or more.”

New research makes it clear that extreme heat affects students’ ability to learn. Those from marginalized communities, including communities of color, suffer the most. Some studies also show cooler air improves things. None have examined the effects on staff, but it makes sense that they also suffer from extreme heat.

Apparently, the state hasn’t noticed. Its 2021-22 The Road Forward ignores temperatures, except to warn against opening windows or doors if outside temperatures are “extreme.”

Others are paying attention. In June, the Jersey Journal called for school upgrades to allow air conditioning, it also suggested a statewide law to deal with hot schools.

Since 2007, annual efforts to pass bills about temperature controls in school districts have failed.

“This year, Assemblywoman Mila Jasey’s bill (A-1044) requires school districts to create policies to maintain reasonable temperatures in all classrooms,” says Heather Sorge from Healthy Schools Now. “It’s a first step towards safe and healthy school temperatures.”

Some states are setting indoor heat hazard standards. Oregon’s July emergency temporary standard calls for increased measures when the “heat index” (accounting for temperature and humidity) reaches 80 and 90 F. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is working on one too.

Persistence pays

Hernandez started talking to parents three years ago. Many weren’t sure what they could do. Some lacked documentation. Like her, their first language was Spanish, and they found it difficult to read English-language board materials.

She built a community group, Unidos por Escuelas Dignas (United for Dignified Schools), with about 200 members. They meet monthly and share information. Hernandez also went to board of education meetings, every month, sometimes with other parents and partners like Healthy Schools Now. She went to local and state governments too, always asking for cooler air in schools. Pandemic-related responsibilities and restrictions slowed things down, including efforts to work with teachers. But she kept e-mailing the district superintendent, asking about his plans.

“Right now, I’m very happy,” she said in mid-July. Air conditioning is being installed in three schools, including her son’s. “That’s the promise”, she added. “Of course, I have to see it to believe it. For many years it’s been just that, promises”. 

NBEA advocates for cooler schools

Most school buildings in New Brunswick were already climate controlled. The exception were the district’s three oldest buildings. Those buildings finally had the necessary electrical upgrades and air conditioning units installed by August.

“I was in one of those buildings for 20 years, so one of the first priorities when I became president was to get air conditioning in those buildings,” said LeShaun Arrington, president of the New Brunswick Education Association.

Arrington credits partnerships with community organizations and a positive working relationship with district administration in getting air conditioning in the buildings.

“My first meeting was with Yolanda who was a strong advocate for air conditioning the schools,” Arrington said. “But when the NBEA sat down with administration I have to say that they came with an open mind and we came with an open mind.”

Arrington noted that NBEA, district administrators, and the school board participate in the New Jersey New Jersey Public Schools Labor-Management Collaborative, and she credits the positive working relationships fostered by that program as well as community advocacy with leading the district to make the investment in cooler air.

New directions for Unidos por Escuelas Dignas

For Unidos por Escuelas Dignas, success is taking Hernandez’s organization in new directions. “We’re starting to talk about breakfast and lunch at the school, to get a menu without a lot of sugar, salt,” she says. “We need to think of the future, we need to take care of our kids.” 

What can health and safety committees do?

Connect cooling the air with cleaning it (i.e., ventilation) and the state’s indoor air quality standard.

Measure, record and map the temperature in all spaces. Try to include humidity too. Present the results to the principal and/or district, requesting inspections and repairs (with a timetable).

When temperatures hit 90 F, request staff and students be relocated to cooler areas.

Advocate for quick fixes:

    Blinds and shades on windows with fans (not effective above 95F)

    Easy access to cool (not cold) potable water

    Open windows when it’s cooler outside, with fans to pull in air

Also push for longer-term solutions like:

    Exterior awnings

    Reflective window shades and blinds

    Ceiling fans (ensure they pull air up)

    Low-energy windows

    Bright white or shiny materials to replace or coat roofs

    New or upgraded HVAC systems, where possible (they will cool AND clean the air)

    Shade trees.

Work with allies (e.g., Unidos por Escuelas Dignas) or set up coalitions to work on cooling and cleaning school air.

Promote cool and clean air in (social) media, emphasising what the problem costs.

Coordinate efforts with other schools through NJEA.

Resources

Why it’s time to tackle the school ventilation problem, Paul Bennett  bit.ly/3eDRaFe

Oregon emergency temporary heat standard osha.oregon.gov/OSHAPubs/factsheets/fs85.pdf

Unidos por Escuelas Dignas: uscufe.wixsite.com/uped

Healthy Schools Now njwec.org/hsn

Dorothy Wigmore is a long-time health and safety specialist, trained in occupational hygiene, ergonomics, and “stress.” She has worked in Canada, the U.S. and Mozambique, focusing on prevention and worker participation to solve job-related hazards.

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