Safe Schools
June 08, 2018

Temperature spikes raise alarms, calls for action about dangerously overheated classrooms

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
classroom temperature

In Brentwood, Suffolk County, teacher Eileen Ortenzi reported to NYSUT that her class logged flaming temperatures of 102 degrees one day and 108 degrees the next day in a May 2017 temperature record.

Ortenzi, a middle school science and English teacher, has also recorded temperatures at other times of 110 degrees to 112 degrees in her second-story brick classroom. "I'm a huge advocate for people not being in oppressive conditions in their classrooms. Why are we accepting these excuses?" she asks. "We have technology shoved down our throats and we're not even using the basic technology of air conditioning. My choice was to be a teacher, not to be a sweatshop worker."

Ortenzi said solar panels can be used to help schools offset costs of running air conditioning, and trees can be planted to shade schools. Although she provided a required doctor's note requesting air conditioning because the extreme heat was affecting several of her health issues, she still was not given an A/C unit until after she contacted her local union and one was finally put in her classroom.

In June 2017, an Irondequoit teacher reported posters falling off the walls due to heat and humidity in the classroom. Opening the windows distracted the students because lawns were being mowed and other kids were playing outside. “Students are sluggish and don't want to participate in their work because they are so hot.”

In another Irondequoit recording, a hot mid-September afternoon pushed temperatures to 94 degrees with 68% humidity.

Schools are vulnerable to hot temperatures because many school buildings are decades old, and classrooms can be located on third or fourth floors. Most lack central air conditioning. Climate change has resulted in a temperature rise in the warmer months. NYSUT is looking for stories on overheated classrooms to help get changes made in laws in order to protect students, teachers, School-Related Professionals and health care workers in the schools. Tell your story at www.nysut.org/heat.

As state exams are scheduled to start June 12, White Plains middle school health teacher Emily Conrad noted with concern that oppressive heat makes it difficult for students to concentrate. “It’s also terrible on the breathing system,” she said, and can cause heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Conrad is a member of NYSUT’s Health and Safety Committee and her district’s health and safety team, and has worked with the superintendent, the facilities and ground director, and the local union to get changes made at the school, including making other rooms available during high heat. New A/C units have been installed in some locations, such as in the cafeteria, and others were replaced with bigger units. A/C was added to the auditorium under the school’s five-year capital improvement plan. Teachers can move students to these locations, although it is not idea for learning, she said, because they are noisy, and technology tools are not all available there. The school also has cold bottled water available and is installing bottle water fountains to reduce waste.

“There’s more that can be done and has to be done,” she said.

Unhealthy, stifling classroom temperatures have been recorded throughout the state. In Cayuga last June, the Department of Environmental Conservation issued an air quality heat advisory for the county when the ozone in the outdoor air was predicted to exceed 100. In Rochester during that same period, record-breaking temperatures were recorded.

Auburn junior high students were falling asleep and complaining of dizziness, headaches and nausea. This took place during end of year testing and it was so hot and humid in the classroom the papers were sticky and it was hard for students to write on them, a union member reported.

Many NYSUT members have recorded temperatures in a two-week log to gather evidence of how serious the problem is. The log can be downloaded from the health and safety webpage at www.nysut.org/healthandsafety.

“Students can't learn in a hot classroom — little education is accomplished because attention is affected by the heat,” said Wendy Hord, NYSUT health and safety specialist. “Many people feel ill when it's too hot, and some have medical conditions that make it even more unbearable. Teachers are concerned about students’ health, and about their own.”

In addition to sending in a temperature story, or logging temperatures, Hord also recommended that union members work with the school nurse and parents to help advocate for change.

“I always tell people that the issue should be included in school emergency plans and that the local unions should propose a temperature threshold at which action should be taken (fans, breaks, water, etc.); and another threshold at which you can't stay in the room anymore,” Hord said.

Meanwhile, members can make sure they drink water and ask for more breaks in cooler areas of the schools.

NYSUT delegates passed a resolution at the spring RA requiring NYSUT to pressure lawmakers to enact legislation so that temperatures in schools conform to the recommendations of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for indoor temperatures in a range of 68-76 degrees during all hours that students and teachers are in the building. Further, NYSUT is also to advocate for the State Education Department to develop guidelines for procedures to close schools when safe temperatures cannot be maintained.

NYSUT Footer
Our Voice, Our Values, Our Union