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Update: On the second and third day of the academic year, 100+ Philadelphia schools are closing early because they lack “sufficient cooling systems,” according to a letter sent to families by district officials. All afterschool activities and sports will also be canceled at those schools.
After 16 years of making do with fans and buckets of ice water, Andrew Saltz finally has air conditioning in his classroom.
The critical new amenity exists thanks to almost three years of hard work and community activism, the teacher said.
“There are so many things in a classroom that you can’t control, that can go wrong,” said Saltz, who teaches English and computer science at Paul Robeson High School in West Philadelphia. “Having one less thing to worry about… Theoretically, no matter what goes wrong, I don’t think we’re going to overheat.”
Teachers, parents and students have been fighting for renovations and upgrades to the building at 42nd and Ludlow streets since COVID forced schools to close, seeing the transition to virtual learning as an opportunity to get renovations done. They circulated petitions, met with school district leaders and invited politicians to Robeson to raise awareness.
Philadelphia School District officials initially resisted, according to Saltz, but the Robeson community didn’t give up. While some of their demands have not been met yet, all the classrooms and offices have air conditioners now.
It’s far from the only Philly school with an air conditioning problem, however.
The district’s buildings average around 77 years old — more than two decades older than the national average, said Councilmember Helen Gym, a longtime education activist. She stressed the importance of improving learning facilities in the city, and said the state could do more to help.
“We have billions of dollars in Harrisburg that could be used for school modernizations that’s desperately needed, would provide jobs and improve educational outcomes for young people,” Gym said.
The district installed 532 air conditioning units in 43 schools this summer, according to The Inquirer, but there are still 58 schools in need of upgrades. In most cases, the issue is less about the cost of installation, and more about the electrical capacity of the old buildings. Officials aren’t targeting completion of all projects until 2027.
Repeated exposure to heat during the school day has been shown to inhibit students’ ability to learn. It drops by almost a percent for every one-degree increase in temperature, according to a 2018 Harvard University study. Air conditioning was found to reduce the effect of heat on students’ learning ability by almost 78%.
Saltz is relieved to finally have an air conditioner but is frustrated it took so long. He believes schools like Robeson — where the majority of students are people of color and live in households with lower incomes — are ignored in favor of schools serving students from higher-income families, despite the district’s equity initiatives.
Per the Harvard study, the heat is three times as damaging for Black and Hispanic students and students living in the poorest zip codes when compared to their white and wealthier peers.
National conversations about learning loss during the pandemic added to Saltz’s frustration.
“We really started speaking out, asking why some people’s learning loss was a national emergency and other people’s learning loss was just the way things are,” he said.
Heat can also pose health risks. In 2011, a girl in Saltz’s class had an asthma attack triggered by the heat and had to go to the hospital when the school could not reach her parents, he said.
“It wasn’t normally bad, she usually didn’t bring her inhaler,” Saltz recalled. “Then it was 92 degrees outside, well over that in the classroom. She was down in the office and she couldn’t breathe.”
Modernizing school buildings is part of the fight for racial and climate justice, said Councilmember Gym, since the highest rates of asthma attacks are concentrated in lower income and Black neighborhoods.
Though Saltz is proud of what the Robeson community accomplished, the fact that they had to fight to get air conditioning should be embarrassing to the school district, he said. He advocated for transferring money spent on curriculum upgrades to be first used for building upgrades.
“Take that money that you’re putting into trying to make me teach harder and give us a better classroom,” Saltz said. “Give us a better environment in which to teach.”
This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.