Two weeks ago, I wrote about the shortcomings of funding public schools. I wrote that piece on a Tuesday morning – the second day of school for most children in the region. It was an earlier start time than tradition for many of those kids. Instead of waiting for Labor Day to pass before ending summer, school districts got students back in the classroom a week early.
Boy did they ever look bad for that decision. Out of the 10 days of scheduled classes those first two weeks, students were sent home early five times. The problem? Many schools still have no air conditioning. As Philadelphia School Superintendent Dr. William Hite explained to WHYY last week, the school district sent kids home early any time the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory. And those advisories came quickly and often for those two weeks.
Now as much as I still don’t understand the need to rush the school year with an early start, that early start can’t really be blamed for the frequent early dismissals. It’s not unheard of to have heat advisories in September or even October in the Philadelphia region. It was, rather, the perfect storm – an early start coinciding with a sudden hot and humid spell.
But that doesn’t mean the heat wave didn’t expose yet another serious problem with our public schools. When I wrote about public school funding two weeks ago, my focus was the environmental issues caused by so-called deferred maintenance, lead paint and asbestos that are ongoing serious concerns facing the district. This heat wave demonstrated the real lack of modern air conditioning in our schools, too.
According to the Philadelphia School District, only 27 percent of its facilities have air conditioning. The district also said that it would cost $145 million to air condition every classroom in the city – a truly daunting for a school district that has struggled to provide adequate numbers of books to its students in the past.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t a Philadelphia problem. School districts around the country were similarly affected. Even neighboring communities in Upper Darby and Cheltenham sent children home early because of heat and a lack of air conditioning. Upper Darby school board member Gina Curry told the Inquirer that citizens should take notice.
“This is not just a matter of air-conditioning units,” Curry said. “It’s about a failing infrastructure. This is a public health concern.”
I agree. A little bit of heat might not hurt kids, who are by and large pretty resilient, but it’s unconscionable to let our public schools decay, leaving them without the means to adequately house students in a heat wave. As global temperatures continue to creep up, this isn’t a problem that’s going to sort itself out. We need a plan to modernize our schools – whether that’s rehabbing them or tearing them down to make way for new buildings.
What could be more important than providing safe and comfortable spaces to educate our children? I can’t think of one.