Kids are sweltering, unengaged without air conditioning

An op-ed piece by former teacher Sara Mosle in today’s New York Times entitled “Schools Are Not Cool” sets the 90-plus-degree classrooms in New York and around the country against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tired “Grumpy Grandpa” argument, which holds that old people never had air conditioning in their schools, and they came out just fine.

The Grumpy Grandpa argument is correct on both points, but what the Times fails to analyze about the mayor’s argument is that it doesn’t support his position of not wanting to provide New York’s classrooms with air conditioning, if we are to read it critically. As any lawyer would know, health conditions among America’s schoolchildren and the immediate surroundings of America’s urban school buildings have deteriorated so much since Grandpa’s time that the argument can’t be applied to today’s schools.

Which need to be cooled down. And it’s not just the New York Times that has been saying this for the past year at least.

Case in point: Karen Lewis and the Chicago Teachers Union, during the strike in September 2012, fought over working conditions, including AC in classrooms. They managed to get a committee to review AC needs, but no promises were made in the ratified contract as to whether the conditions would be improved any time soon.

In Baltimore City, we had a high temperature of 91°F yesterday, about 12°F above normal, as well as 16-year-olds taking the SAT, on which their college admission may depend, in not just a few hot high schools across the city.

In Baltimore County, the Baltimore Sun reports, the school board was advised to reconsider AC in some of the elementary schools—by a fifth grader from Westowne Elementary School in Catonsville, who said, “We students find it hard to learn well during these extreme conditions in our school. We often feel nauseated, have headaches, and cannot focus.”

Do you honestly expect a 10-year-old who gets headaches and feels nauseated to learn how to add mixed numbers with unlike denominators? To perform well on a science assessment? If you do, you don’t get around much.

Not even workplaces should allow temperatures to rise above about 77°F, according to the Society for Human Resource Management: “There is no requirement for employers to maintain a certain workplace temperature under federal [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] regulations; however, OSHA does recommend employers maintain workplace temperatures in the range of 68-76 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity control in the range of 20 to 60 percent.”

Just because a temperature range is unenforceable under OSHA’s guidelines doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

Furthermore, workers who are not very young or elderly can tolerate higher heat indices than children can. Research published in June 2012 concluded that heat waves are especially dangerous to children because kids’ bodies don’t acclimate to the heat as well as adults’ bodies do. “They don’t sweat as effectively. They absorb more heat since they have smaller bodies and a higher ratio of surface area to body mass,” said Jerold Stirling, chair of the department of pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine and pediatrician at Loyola University Health System.

It’s possible to increase cooling for kids’ low-efficiency bodies by cooling the air so they don’t absorb as much heat or by moving the air so their sweating becomes more efficient in terms of cooling their body down. Evaporative cooling doesn’t work very well in high-humidity environments such as the stagnant air of school buildings. It’s a matter of the water concentration in the air and the chemistry concept of equilibrium.

Those are really the only options besides just letting kids outside. If they have to stay in schools, ways should be found to cool the air in school buildings or to increase the movement of air in school buildings. If we can do all these great things in science, why can’t we keep kids cool in their classrooms so they can focus on their classes? It needs doing.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.