Students sweat it out in classrooms without air conditioning
BY LAUREN FITZPATRICK Education Reporter August 27, 2013 2:10PM
Updated: September 29, 2013 6:42AM
While new air conditioners hummed along at some 50 “welcoming schools” that took in students from CPS’ record number of closed schools, Portage Park Elementary kids were among students spending another super-sweaty day in 90-plus-degree temperatures.
Portage Park, which was not assigned to receive kids from a closed school so it didn’t any of the accompanying upgrades, isn’t entirely air-conditioned, said Victoria Benson, the Local School Council chair, and probably can’t be because CPS estimated the cost of upgrading the wiring in the old building as a small fortune.
“It makes me angry,” she said, that the district found money to fix receiving schools. “I get that they’re a welcoming school but I think all kids deserve the same.”
Monday “was so bad. My one son’s on the non-air-conditioned side,” Benson said, referring to her boy who’s in the 5th grade. “My little guy has an air-conditioned room — it’s not stifling like the other end (of the building), but it’s not like air-conditioned,” she said, referring to the still-sultry conditions in the classroom of her other son, who is in first grade.
Kindergartners in a non-air-conditioned portion of the building were a sweaty mess, said Benson, who volunteered Monday as an extra set of hands. And the third floor of the old building, where the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are housed, gave off a powerful smell of adolescence.
“On the third floor, there was not even a breeze,” she said. But teachers handled the heat “with such grace . . .. They were doing the best they can to keep them cool.”
CPS has touted the installation of air conditioners in all classrooms in the schools designated to receive kids from closed schools, putting in more than 2,400 units in 2,000 classrooms in those schools. Many other schools never had cooling systems and are suffering as the district’s early start coincides with a heat wave.
Districtwide, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett sent directions to principals instructing hot schools on days like Tuesday, when temperatures were predicted to hit 95, to do things like drawing shades to keep out the sun, moving classes if buildings have cooler sections, and offering regular water breaks.
CPS also has 800 fans for schools who request them, CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said. She couldn’t immediately say how many schools don’t have air conditioning, partial or full, only that the majority of schools had some kind of air conditioning. As of May,before receiving school upgrades began, more than 90 CPS schools had no form of air conditioning, according to a draft of the Educational Facilities Master Plan.
“Some schools because of their age cannot support window AC units or be retrofitted for full AC,” she said. “And the cost to do every school last year was over $1 billion.”
Several suburban districts have closed school altogether or shortened class days. CPS hasn’t yet taken that step but told principals that should temperatures hit highs of more than 100 degrees, the CEO may close schools.
Air-conditioning emerged as a quality of life issue during last year’s strike.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel downplayed it, saying on the strike’s first day, “Everything here is down to two final issues, and it’s not air-conditioning, OK. It’s 71 degrees outside. We don’t go on strike for air-conditioning.” And Board of Education president David Vitale said at the time, “We’d love to have air conditioning in every school. We’d love to have more social workers. But the truth of the matter is we only have so many resources.”
Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis demanded equality at a Union Park rally: “I want them to turn off the air-conditioning at 125 S. Clark, and work like we work. I want them to turn off the air conditioning on the fifth floor of City Hall and let them work like we work.”
The heat Tuesday — 91 degrees by noon — may have contributed to the blown fuses that shut down power at Mollison Elementary, 4415 S. King, Tuesday morning, prompting the busing of the 600 students King College Prep High School, 4445 S. Drexel, for the afternoon and back to Mollison for dismissal. No one was hurt; Carroll said a generator will be brought to Mollison to “ensure power to the school is running” for Wednesday.
Reports Tuesday out of Solomon Elementary School 6206 N Hamlin, where about 20 percent of students are special education, were of 87 degrees by 9 a.m. on the west side of the school building, according to LSC chair Tammy Stams. Common spaces have air conditioning but not classrooms, she said: the lunchroom, the library.
“I give the individuals inside the school great props for doing what they need to do to keep these kids cool,” she said. “They’re working really hard to see to it everybody’s comfortable and safe as it can be.”
She said her school raised some money toward air conditioners and got a state grant for the rest but was waiting for CPS to make a decision on how to proceed.
Meanwhile, Stams wanted to keep her son, an 8th grader who uses a wheelchair, at home.
“He wanted to tough it out,” she said. “He wanted to go.”
Contributing: Luke Wilusz