By Gail O'Connor
June 13, 2014

It amazes me that in 2014, many schools still don't have air conditioning. How can children concentrate, much less learn anything, sitting in a room with temperatures hovering in the mid 80s to the 90s, as many U.S. kids whose schools are still in session are doing right now?

While technology and other projects have taken priority, physical comfort during the warmer weeks of the beginning and end of the school year, it seems, still lags on the list. "If prisons have AC, then so should schools!" says my friend Linda, a mom and former teacher who's passionate about this topic.

Last week at my son's spring orchestra concert, I wish I could have focused on the kids' beautiful performance. But I was distracted by how uncomfortable they looked in the heat of the school's un-air-conditioned auditorium. While parents fanned themselves with their programs and checked the time, children onstage blew hair out of their eyes, wiped their foreheads on their bare arms, and tugged at their shirt collars. Last night, I attended a literacy celebration at my younger child's school, in a 100-year-old building, where we were encouraged to write notes of "warm feedback"—code for positive commentary, but could have just as easily referred to our pencil-smeared, sweat stained Post-Its.

I thought about these kids, and the school staff, who have to work in hot classrooms through the end of next week in our New Jersey district, and wondered how many other schools still don't have air conditioning. In asking a few friends whether they had air at their schools, a theme emerged: If you were lucky enough to get some state grant money, and/or if your school had a strong enough PTA, and generous donations from parents, air conditioning is a popular project at the moment, with passionate supporters. Still, cooling a school is quite an undertaking: paying for individual wall units, updating electrical work, purchasing compressors and air handlers, and so on. Understandably, it's been slow coming. But it's also overdue.

In one of my favorite classic movies, The Seven Year Itch, a straight-and-narrow New York businessman's summer gets interesting when the new girl who's moved into the apartment above, Marilyn Monroe, comes downstairs to bask in his air conditioning. His wife and child are away in the country for the summer, as was customary in 1955, because it was too darn hot.

It's been nearly 60 years since Marilyn famously stood in a white dress over a subway grate to catch a breeze. Our local elementary school is in the process of getting cool air flowing in classrooms—but not the large gym/auditorium/lunchroom—in time for next year. Schools that don't have active PTOs, or in districts where parents can't afford to make the contributions necessary to install air, are left behind. This is unfair, and not just from a comfort and health standpoint: Not surprisingly, studies have found that students working in stifling-hot conditions perform worse on exams.

I think about New York City schoolchildren—the many who don't have air conditioning—who will have sweltering days in their classrooms through June 26th. Chicago is ponying up $100 million to meet Mayor Rahm Emanuel's "sudden mandate to air-condition classrooms in 206 schools, even as CPS [Chicago Public Schools] faces a $1 billion shortfall and many other pressing capital needs," as the Chicago Sun Times reported in April.

I detect judginess of Chicago's mayor in those words. But as a mother who, like most parents, is sympathetic to sweaty, red-faced kids and teachers, I'm with Rahm.

Air conditioning, now!

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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