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In New York City, School is Anything But Cool

Air Conditioner Unit

As New York City’s public school children took their end-of-year exams late last month, the city’s classrooms felt more like 19th-century sweatshops than 21st-century places of education.

That’s because roughly a third of the city’s public schools lack access to a working air conditioning system.

With temperatures throughout the city hovering around a sultry 90 degrees Fahrenheit for the last few weeks of the school year — and with many public school classrooms outfitted with broken air conditioning units or none at all — teachers saw the effects of the heat on their students.

For Julian Marsano, a fifth-grade teacher at Brooklyn’s Public School 124, the heat meant dialing back the lesson plans for his class, forgoing lessons on arithmetic means and graphs for something more leisurely.

“I felt like the entire day was just going to slip away in terms of all of my plans and ambitions,” said Mr. Marsano. According to the New York Times, Mr. Marsano often sees his students become lethargic, ill and even unconscious in the presence of summertime heat.

Without a working air conditioning system, public schools see a rise in absences, a decrease in classroom productivity and even the occasional medical emergency. On New York City’s hottest days, there’s a 5 to 10% decrease in classroom attendance.

And if a child has an asthma attack or faints due to the heat in his or her classroom, there won’t be much respite. Few school nurses’ offices are air conditioned, either. Two summers ago, Noemi Roman, the nurse at P.S. 124, had to be hospitalized for several hours after struggling to breathe in her office, which is equipped only with a tiny fan.

Not surprisingly, children who go to school in air-conditioned classrooms — more often than not at private schools — have an unfair cognitive and academic advantage over their public school counterparts.

While approximately two out of three American households have an air conditioning system installed, the same can’t be said for the majority of public schools across the country. With many schools struggling to stay within budget as it is, an air conditioning system, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars, is usually never called into consideration.

Even if a teacher wanted to invest in a room-sized air conditioning unit for his or her classroom, New York State’s labyrinthine energy considerations, contractual obligations and safety regulations often prevent them from being able to do so.

To combat the problem, city administrators proposed a resolution last summer that would make it mandatory for all city schools to have functioning heating and cooling systems. Jason Fink, a deputy press secretary for the city’s Department of Education, said the department “is committed to ensuring that all instructional space used for summer school is air-conditioned.”

But these various legislative actions, whose intended goals might not be implemented for a few more years, don’t offer much in the way of a respite from the simmering summer heat.