A heat wave in June, along with mid-summer high temperature spikes hovering near 100 degrees, have sparked an outcry for legislation that would lower temperatures at which schools can operate. Lethargy, light-headedness, headaches, nausea and breathing difficulties are just some of the ill effects high classroom temperatures have on students and staff. High heat can also damage school supplies.
"It's a huge concern, especially when you get heat waves," said Jen Cole, a special education teacher at Greenburgh 11 and chair of NYSUT's Health and Safety Task Force. People have had to be removed from schools because of heat-related illness, she said.
Proposed legislation would help. A bill introduced in the last legislative session and supported by NYSUT would mandate that classrooms hotter than 90 degrees cannot be occupied. The bill would cover all public school districts and BOCES. It does not, however, cover higher education, and this is one of the improvements NYSUT is advocating for in discussions with bill sponsors Assemblyman Mike Spano, D-Yonkers, and Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers.
"Each school year, high temperatures have had an adverse affect on both staff and students' health and educational process," said Colleen Condolora, a member of the task force and a teaching assistant for Capital Region BOCES.
When temperatures rose in June of this year, some staff and students found a limited number of air-conditioned rooms to stave off nausea and weakness. Learning and teaching were challenging.
Thomas Barry, president of the East Islip Teachers Association, reported that a design flaw in his district's high school building causes five classrooms to superheat when temperatures rise.
"When it gets to 85 degrees (outside), the indoor room temperatures can rise to over 120 degrees," he said. Budget pressures have prevented a resolution.
In early June, Doug Cody, assistant professor of chemistry, reported "horrendous conditions" at SUNY Farmingdale. There was no air conditioning for four days. "My laboratory was over 95 degrees twice. Try wearing lab coats and goggles in that environment," he said.
Air conditioning is regularly not functioning multiple days in the summer, reports Cody, a member of NYSUT's task force. The Chemistry Department has canceled lab class occasionally when conditions were very extreme.
Summer school is especially challenging. Condolora said last year's record-breaking high temperatures caused many health problems for students and staff — on the first day of summer school, the thermometer registered 105 degrees indoors. The district and the union moved most students to the air-conditioned library, faculty rooms and cafeteria, and set up industrial fans in other rooms. Bottled water and freeze pops were handed out.
"The working conditions were deplorable for most of the summer," she said. This summer, the BOCES rented air-conditioned rooms.
"All students and employees deserve the right to be comfortable and safe," Condolora said.
Emergency preparedness is part of SAVE (Safe Schools Against Violence) legislation, "but the one thing they never prepared for is what to do in cases of extreme heat," said Cole.
"In addition to legislation, school districts need language addressing high temperatures in their emergency plan," said Kathleen Donahue, NYSUT vice president and a former classroom teacher.
Jean Grassman, a Professional Staff Congress member who teaches at CUNY Brooklyn, said members working in temporary trailers during June's heat wave were able to secure AC "only after vociferous requests. We need legislation, since mere misery and life-threatening conditions do not spur action," Grassman said.