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Philadelphia schools close due to high temperatures and no air conditioning

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The school district of Philadelphia welcomed more than 115,000 students back to the classroom this week and then released many of them from school early due to the late summer heat. In Philadelphia, most of the city's schools lack central air conditioning.

Aubri Juhasz of WHYY in Philadelphia has been talking with folks about the problem. Hey, Aubrey.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Temperatures in Philly have been in the high 80s and low 90s this week, which can make it hard for anybody to focus in a building without air conditioning. How are families and teachers dealing with the decision to close some schools early?

JUHASZ: Yeah, there's definitely been some frustration. The district says, you know, they try to give parents as much notice as possible, but that just doesn't always happen. Eighteen schools were added to the district's list of already 100 schools on Tuesday morning, so parents really didn't have time to plan. Several of Tijuana Desphy's kids attend Spring Garden Elementary in central Philadelphia, and some of the classrooms at Spring Garden have window units, but not all of them. She says her kids do not like to be hot, especially her older daughter, Alyssa.

TIJUANA DESPHY: She don't like to be hot. But if they could, like, get, like, air conditioners or central air, I think that would be great 'cause then we got to come and get them out early. It messes up our day.

JUHASZ: Desphy sees the lack of air conditioning as an equity issue, and that's because the district's new dismissal policy only closes schools with inadequate air conditioning, which means some kids get to spend more time learning than others. I also spoke to a teacher at a school that, on paper, has enough air conditioners to keep the building cool. But in reality, he said that isn't the case. Some of the window units aren't working this week, and the building has been pretty uncomfortable, with temperatures in the cafeteria and gymnasium registering in the 90s.

SHAPIRO: But why don't all of Philadelphia's schools have air conditioning?

JUHASZ: Yeah, that's the question. And the answer is because a lot of the buildings are just really, really old. The average age is 75 years, and their electrical systems can't support central air in most cases. And in some cases, they can't even support window units in every single classroom. Over the summer, the district installed 500 new window units where they could. But even with that, nearly 60% of the schools still lack sufficient cooling systems.

SHAPIRO: So this clearly is not a new problem, but is it happening more often lately?

JUHASZ: Yeah. So the problem is that, you know, they've dealt with this in the past, but there's more hot days later in the summer, and there's an earlier start to the school year. You know, in the last couple of years, they've started before Labor Day, so it's just become more of an issue. The schools without sufficient A/C are supposed to close if classroom temperatures are expected to reach 90 degrees or more, and that was the situation on Monday - the first day of school - when building engineers clocked high temperatures inside many, many buildings. That led the district to close more than 100 schools three hours early both yesterday and today to make sure that students and teachers didn't overheat. I spoke to the president of the local teachers union, Jerry Jordan, about this, and he agreed with the decision to close some schools early.

JERRY JORDAN: Because if you don't have air conditioning in the buildings, it's very, very hard for children to concentrate and for a classroom to really function the way that it should.

JUHASZ: Yeah, and it can also be dangerous. You know, a large number of children in Philadelphia have respiratory problems, like asthma. Jordan says his organization and others have been calling on the district to come up with the resources necessary to fully cool all of its buildings. But the problem is, there's billions of dollars in unmet capital needs. That coupled with the extensive scope of work needed and the sheer number of projects just makes it a gargantuan task. And officials say they are working on it, but it won't be fully completed until 2027.

SHAPIRO: Aubri Juhasz is WHYY's education reporter. Thanks for speaking with us today.

JUHASZ: You're welcome. Happy to do it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aubri Juhasz is a news assistant for NPR's All Things Considered.
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