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Schools struggle with hot classrooms, not enough air conditioning in record heat waves

Record-shattering temperatures are making it difficult for schools to keep children cool as they return to class.

Schools across the country are struggling to install adequate air conditioning amid record heat waves as students return to the classroom.

It's “a real challenge” to install air conditioning units in schools, in part because many buildings are so old, Tom Parent, the executive director of operations for Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, told TODAY's Maggie Vespa.

"It's expensive to get systems that perform to modern expectations," Parent said.

Testing conditions above 80 F negatively affected standardized test scores.

2020 study of 12,000 school districts published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour

According to a study conducted by the National Council on School Facilities, 41% of schools reported issues with heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

The issue is even affecting schools in places like St. Paul, Minnesota, where a more common issue was staying warm amid frigid temperatures — not cool.

Now, Parent says the schools in his state are faced with the daunting task of figuring out how to keep students cool among extreme heat waves made more frequent as a result of the ongoing climate crisis.

"We’re trying to (make sure) that these buildings are relevant and supporting our kids for where education is going," Parent told Vespa.

When children are forced to learn in hot classrooms, it can hurt both their health and their education.

One 2020 study of 12,000 school districts published in the journal Nature Human Behaviourfound that testing conditions above 80 F negatively affected standardized test scores.

In 2023, The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that higher temperatures as a result of climate change could damage students' academic achievements and even potentially hurt their income as adults.

To keep students cool, administrators in St. Paul, Minnesota, have allocated what Vespa described as "massive chunks of funding," including $28.4 million in federal grants, to pay for air conditioning upgrades.

The problem is not just affecting schools in Minnesota.

In 2020, a Government Accountability Office assessment found that more than 36,000 public schools nationwide need to update their HVAC systems.

In Salem, Oregon, photos show classrooms without air conditioning, Vespa reports. Instead, classroom windows are shrouded by heat-reducing window-film.

In Polk County, Florida, parents are growing angry over inadequate or non-existent air conditioning and the teachers’ union has filed a class action grievance over “systemic AC issues," WFLA in Florida reports.

"AC units in many of our schools are not working or not working to the capacity they should to be a suitable, conducive learning environment for our students,” the memo stated, as reported by local NBC affiliate WFLA, before alleging an "ongoing lack of preparedness and inability."

"My second grader said it's disgusting," Aimee Dearing, parent in Polk Country, Florida, told NBC. "It should have been handled over the months where kids weren’t in there."

School administrators told WFLA crews worked through the weekend to address the complaints, prioritizing AC repairs as they come in and installing portable systems in affected schools.

Vespa reports that there are ways parents can get involved to ensure their children stay cool as they head back to school, including:

  • Become advocates; speak up at school board meetings.
  • Ask teachers if they are logging classroom temperatures, which can help with reporting later on.
  • Ask the school district what the plan is for moving students out of hot classrooms into cooler spaces like an air-conditioned gym.
  • If all else fails, good old fundraising: Parents can raise money for fans and portable AC units.