When Adriana Galante opens the door of her Family and Consumer Sciences classroom at Weber Middle School in Port Washington, she is nearly knocked backwards by the heat.
“Since my first day I’ve been blown away by how brutally hot it gets,” Galante said. The classroom temperatures begin in the high 80s but when her students begin cooking, they soar to the mid-90s. “My students come in and they say, ‘Ugh, it’s so hot in here!’’ she said. “They get sweaty, and their faces get red. Some just lay their heads down,” she said. “It’s a very strenuous day.”
The reason? Aging infrastructure that cannot keep up with the demands of today’s changing climate. As average temperatures in New York continue to rise, students and teachers alike are being forced to confront increasingly unhealthy indoor environments.
The seven buildings in Galante’s district vary in age, but her second-floor classroom is located in a portion of the middle school that was built in 1929 and isn’t air conditioned. She has raised the issue repeatedly with administration only to be told that it would be too expensive to bring A/C to her classroom.
"They don’t understand how bad it is,” she said.
NYSUT has long pushed for setting statewide standards that would compel districts to maintain safe temperatures in school buildings. A bill on this issue is currently sitting in the state Assembly and Senate Education committees and is expected to be re-introduced in the 2023–24 legislative session. The proposed bill would require school districts to tailor-make solutions to alleviate extreme heat conditions in each building when temperatures hit 82 degrees and require the school to evacuate if the temperature inside hits 88 degrees.
“It’s something that we really need to address,” said Margaret Sergent, second vice president of the Rochester Teachers Association and chairperson of her local’s health and safety committee. “It is just ridiculous.”
Rochester has 59 schools and facilities in its city district, and Sergent estimates that more than half do not have air conditioning. HVAC overhauls are usually part of capital improvement projects, but since those only take place every five years, Sergent works collaboratively with the district’s facilities team to resolve issues as they arise. “We work building by building, classroom by classroom. As issues come up, we try to find a solution, whether it’s a fan or a window unit or a ceiling fan,” she said.
Aging infrastructure is the number-one culprit for excessive heat at Cheektowaga-Sloan Union Free School District, too. “Only a few rooms in each building have air conditioning,” said Sarah Borowiec, seventh-grade math teacher and member of the Cheektowaga-Sloan TA. All four buildings are different ages, she continued. One of the buildings is over 100 years old. Another has windows that do not open fully.
“On very hot days in the school year, the heat makes students extremely uncomfortable, and they have a hard time focusing, especially in parts of the building where the sun is beating in the windows and those windows might only open a crack,” she said. “It impacts focus. It impacts learning. When students can’t feel comfortable and think clearly, they are automatically less engaged.”
The issue has become so prominent at Cheektowaga-Sloan that the local union has decided to organize around it, Borowiec said. She said their first step will be to identify potential funding sources to overhaul the school district’s heating and cooling systems.
“We have ascertained that there are some grants out there that can help us, and that might help our school district push this forward in their agenda,” Borowiec said.
Pandemic aid has been a surprising source of relief for many overheated classrooms. Signed into law in 2021, the American Rescue Plan provided almost $170 billion in assistance for public schools recovering from COVID-19. The funds can be used for a wide variety of services, but many school districts prioritized upgrades to their heating, cooling and ventilation systems. In fact, national spending in this category outstripped every other, except staffing. Communities and schools can continue to get ARPA funds through 2024, and they can spend the relief through 2026.