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A heat wave, and lack of air conditioning, disrupt school districts nationwide

An elementary student at Maryland Avenue Montessori in Milwaukee sits under an open window and fan. Milwaukee Public Schools dismissed students early Tuesday due to hot temperatures and lack of air conditioning in most schools.
Emily R. Files
An elementary student at Maryland Avenue Montessori in Milwaukee sits under an open window and fan. Milwaukee Public Schools dismissed students early Tuesday due to hot temperatures and lack of air conditioning in most schools.

Coming off a hot Labor Day weekend, many students around the country had their return to classrooms cut short. Schools along the East Coast and in parts of the Midwest changed their schedules — in some cases sending students home early — due to heat advisories and lack of air conditioning.

Districts in New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin called for a half day on Tuesday to get students home before the temperatures peaked. At some schools in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, students were told to stay at home and log on for virtual learning.

In Milwaukee, Alice Kirtley finished up her first day of fourth grade at 11 a.m. She says her teachers at Maryland Avenue Montessori are trying their best, but the classroom still gets really hot: "They have fans and they open the windows a lot, but I would appreciate air conditioners."

A district representative confirmed that 56% of Milwaukee's public schools offer "full or partial air conditioning for students and staff," but that leaves almost half the schools in the district without. It's not just Wisconsin — lack of reliable air conditioning is a problem nationwide. A 2020 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that an estimated 41% of districts needed to update or replace HVAC systems in at least half their schools.

Big city districts like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh often have old school buildings that can't handle AC for one reason or another. In many cases, they try to find workarounds for a handful of hot days each year.

Oz Hill, chief operating officer for the School District of Philadelphia, said the district this year decided to move the first day of school from late August to after Labor Day, to "reduce the likelihood that extreme temperatures would impact our ability to provide in-person instruction."

However, even with the later start date, early dismissals are already disrupting students, teachers and parents.

"If you know you're going to dismiss early, why bring them all the way in?" asked Donna Collazo. On Tuesday, she had to pick her son up from South Philadelphia High School at 11 a.m. "It's an inconvenience for parents. If you let us know ahead of time, we can plan for that. But this is frustrating. It's very frustrating."

Collazo considers herself lucky, since she was able to rearrange her schedule to pick up her child, but the lack of transparency makes her nervous. The district announced that Wednesday will also be an early release day, but with high temperatures for the rest of the week it's yet to be seen if the whole first week of school will be affected.

"The start of the school year is supposed to be about this excited, nervous energy to meet everyone, start the year off right," says Eric Hitchner, a high school English teacher at Building 21 in Philadelphia.

His classroom does not have AC and he's clocked temperatures as high as 90 degrees indoors. "Even with the early release, everyone is walking out of that building sweaty and exhausted."

Emily Files of WUWM and Amanda Fitzpatrick of WHYY contributed reporting. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sequoia Carrillo is an assistant editor for NPR's Education Team. Along with writing, producing, and reporting for the team, she manages the Student Podcast Challenge.

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