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Adapting our schools to a changing climate

October 1, 2018

Fall’s first crisp breezes, chillier nights and low humidity finally arrived in southeastern Connecticut at about the same time calendars proclaimed the official passage of the autumnal equinox. For many schoolchildren and their teachers who literally sweated out the first month of the school year in hot, stuffy classrooms, this meteorological respite was no doubt more than welcome.

Because so many school buildings in Connecticut remain without air conditioning, school districts throughout the state this year shortened school days during the severe heat wave that hit just as the school year began. 

Such decisions are likely to become more frequent. Heat and humidity now typically lingers much later into September, sometimes crops up again in October, and can arrive earlier in the academic year’s waning weeks. This is at the same time that most schools now begin classes a week or more before Labor Day, virtually guaranteeing more days during which poor air quality permeates classrooms. 

A lack of air conditioning means more than discomfort for students and teachers. Poor air quality that often accompanies heat and high humidity poses barriers to effective learning for all students and, for some, serious health challenges. It is simply tough to learn, or teach, when you are that uncomfortable.

Some 6 million U.S. children, or one in 12 up to the age of 17, have asthma, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Rates of the disease among Connecticut children are slightly higher than national averages. The state Department of Public Health found that 72,000 children in the state had the disease in 2014. The disease also impacts lower income children at a higher rate. And poorer communities are more likely to have older, poorly ventilated schools that lack modern temperature control systems.

In addition to asthma, many children also have allergies. Molds that thrive in the humidity-laden summer air, especially near the shoreline, can trigger allergy attacks. 

The good news in Connecticut is that more schools are controlling air temperature and humidity levels because air conditioning is a state-required component of public school renovation and construction projects that receive state funding. Air conditioning also has been added to some individual classrooms even in districts where most of the schools remain un-air conditioned in order to accommodate individual children’s special needs. 

Still, this piecemeal approach to ensuring air conditioning in schools is creating yet another school gap in the state. Many towns have not renovated their school buildings in decades and have no plans to do so in the near future. 

In a state still struggling to climb out of a deep fiscal crisis and throughout towns where declining school enrollments are increasing per pupil school costs for municipal taxpayers, it’s not likely a solution to this problem will come from the public sector. We don’t advocate that it should, at least not until this state can get back on firm fiscal footing. 

Still, this is a problem that does need a solution. Parents have stepped up in some communities and might in others. Some parent-teacher organizations have made providing air conditioning units for classrooms a fund-raising priority. Providing air conditioning also could be a project for nonprofit education foundations that exist in some communities. Corporate sponsors, particularly those in the energy fields, could adopt schools in need of renovation work to help students and educators breathe easier.

While indications are that asthma is becoming better controlled among patients, in 2009 some 60,000 students missed school and day care days in Connecticut due to asthma. These also likely translate to missed work days for many parents. Given the public health nature of the problem and the impact it has on lost work time, employers and the healthcare community could play a bigger role in ensuring better air quality exists in all school buildings over the entire school year.

 

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