Temporary measures inadequate to address heat in San Diego schools, teachers say
Third grade teacher Ramiro Ramirez, shown with fellow teacher Allison Curry, invites those who think high classroom temperatures are a mere discomfort to spend a day in his classroom. Photo by Nicholas McVicker, KPBS

Temporary measures inadequate to address heat in San Diego schools, teachers say

Teachers whose San Diego classrooms are surpassing 85 degrees for days at a time say temporary coping measures offered by school officials are unworkable. They are forced to teach less on hot days, some say, and student learning slows.

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Experts say temperatures in some San Diego classrooms are unacceptable, and teachers say learning, the fundamental purpose of school, is diminished in intense heat.

The weather has cooled somewhat now, but in San Diego Unified schools both inland and coastal, classrooms without air conditioning recorded multiple days in the 90s as this school year began. Teachers say the beginning of the school year last year was also unacceptable, and National Weather Service records provide some support for the perspective.

Such temperatures are “absolutely unacceptable” in a classroom, said Marco Pritoni, an energy engineer at the Western Cooling Efficiency Center at the University of California Davis.

School officials say they are working on a timeline to air condition all classrooms and will now deliver four portable air conditioners — sufficient to provide two cool rooms — to every school.

Teachers describe shortening their lessons, postponing memorization tasks, student distraction with small personal fans, overhead fans blowing papers into disarray, and five or six class trips daily to the bathroom for the youngest students, whose bladders can’t hold all the water they’re encouraged to drink and who cannot travel to the bathroom alone.

“Each instructional minute is valuable,“ said Allison Curry, who teaches third grade at Balboa Elementary in southeastern San Diego, where many kids are English language learners. “We’re not just trying to stay at the same level as students in other schools, we’re trying to catch up. We can’t afford to lose instructional time.“

Most days this year, she said in October, “we have not been able to do the same level of teaching.”

Some teachers spritz their children with water from spray bottles or fan them. Others, in schools with partial air conditioning, switch rooms with their more fortunate colleagues so that they’ll have a cool room for their largest classes.

More than 40 percent of schools in the San Diego Unified School District, the second largest in California, lack full air conditioning. Thirty-three schools have none at all. This puts the district in the minority. Other large school districts in this border county are completely air-conditioned, records obtained by inewsource show.

Until now, it has not been on the radar for San Diego Unified to air condition all schools. And schools nearer the ocean were excluded from consideration, on the assumption that they are cooler. But recently some of the strongest concern about overheated classrooms has come from parents and teachers at coastal schools.

Records obtained from the National Centers for Environmental Information, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, show the waterfront weather station at San Diego International Airport has never recorded more hot days than it did this year and last (inewsource obtained records dating back to 1950).

The teachers at Balboa Elementary said even the two cool rooms created by portable air conditioning will not serve as school officials imagine. The rooms make teachers choose between a healthy temperature and their planned lessons, they said. Curry and third grade teacher Ramiro Ramirez said they often plan classes using software and interactive digital white boards, sort of a cross between a computer and a blackboard. The cool rooms lack these boards. Without these tools, Ramirez said, he must come up with teaching plans “on the fly.”

With the youngest students in what is called transitional kindergarten, Stacey Sasaki changes activities frequently. She draws from a room full of props, games and animals, accumulated over 14 years in the profession. The collection is not easily moved around. “And I can’t make 4-year-olds carry a bunch of stuff,” she said.

School district officials say they have tried to expedite installation of air conditioning in the hotter regions of the city. But in each case they must first conduct a building assessment, undergo design, submit the design to the California Division of the State Architect, release the design plan for competitive bidding, select a bid, and gain approval from the five-member school board, said Cynthia Reed-Porter, a district representative.

So many classrooms still lack air conditioning, she said, because “normally the high heat temperatures are for a fairly short period of time.” Climate models suggest more hot days occurring over a larger spread of months in San Diego. “We’re dealing with the here and now,” Reed-Porter said.

Blue indicates school districts that have responded to requests for information and are 100 percent or nearly 100 percent air conditioned. Ten districts have not yet responded. Districts marked red have well below 100 percent air conditioning. Sunshine Cho contributed data to this map. Map design by Leo Castaneda, inewsource.

Blue indicates school districts that have responded to requests for information and are 100 percent or nearly 100 percent air conditioned. Ten districts have not yet responded. Districts marked red have well below 100 percent air conditioning. Sunshine Cho contributed data to this map. Map design by Leo Castaneda, inewsource.

One of the district’s challenges is that many schools were built heedless of prevailing breezes. This means an outdoor walkway may be airy while a classroom broils. Many are also built of concrete that absorbs the sun’s rays, changes them to heat, and radiates the heat into the building overnight, creating a stifling build-up over successive hot days. Teachers have reported temperatures above 80 degrees when they enter classrooms at 6:30 a.m.

Another challenge is that schools that lack air conditioning are swimming against a tide. In the world of school construction and remodeling, excitement surrounds managers who can slash energy use, not increase it. As part of its wholesale conversion to a low-carbon economy, California seeks to reduce buildings to low and even zero net electricity users. Air conditioning adds a significant new load.

Schools that consider new air conditioning should invest in windows first, said Ted Flanigan, a building energy efficiency expert and president of Ecomotion, a Southern California company that does work with school districts. It shouldn’t be installed on top of a building that is unnecessarily absorbing heat from every surface. “That’s all wrong,” he said.

Experts like Flanigan recommend that building managers do everything possible to reduce the need for air conditioning before adding AC. That way air-conditioning units can be sized smaller, and thus run more cheaply.

School districts should definitely look at shading devices before they look at air conditioning, Marco Pritoni agreed, because it is “practically free.” Unlike air conditioning, trees and shade awnings come with no ongoing monthly cost.

It is not clear whether San Diego Unified is taking this approach. “The discussion seems to be focused on air conditioning at this point,” Reed-Porter said.

KT Martin, an eighth grade teacher at Challenger Middle School in Mira Mesa, said children had passed out from the heat at the school. “Somebody is going to get really hurt. I’m afraid that’s what it is going to take.”

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About Ingrid Lobet:

Ingrid Lobet
Ingrid Lobet is a reporter at inewsource specializing in the environment. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email ingridlobet@inewsource.org.