Philly schools won’t be fully air-conditioned until 2027. Here’s why.
“It was over 100 degrees by 10 a.m.,” a staffer at Fitler Elementary in Germantown said. "It’s unhealthy to be sitting in there like that — we were all sweaty, lightheaded, tired, cranky.”
Some Philadelphia schools dismissed early Tuesday and will do so again Wednesday — only days into the Philadelphia School District’s 2022-23 academic year — because of high temperatures and a lack of adequate air-conditioning. Others with cooler interiors remained open.
And the end to a system of haves and have-nots is years away: Officials said Tuesday that they won’t be able to fully air-condition every district school until 2027.
After first announcing 100 early dismissals Monday, then adding 18 more schools Tuesday, the district’s patchwork dismissals frustrated parents, school staff, and others, who kept asking: Why is something so predictable as sizzling summer weather snarling the first week of school?
“In Philadelphia, the last two weeks of August are always hot and humid,” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said. “As long as our buildings are not fully air-conditioned, we’re going to have this same crisis to deal with at the beginning of the school year. We’re going to have kids and educators getting ill, sitting in buildings that are very hot.”
District officials, per their newly instituted hot-weather protocols, begin monitoring conditions inside buildings when temperatures are forecast to reach 85 degrees and above. When building temperatures reach 90 and above, the district works with principals to determine whether a closure or early dismissal is warranted.
But even Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. felt the heat, literally.
“Candidly, some of the schools I visited today were hot because they are among the 100 schools in our district without sufficient cooling systems,” Watlington, who visited multiple schools on the first two days of school, wrote in a letter sent to staff Tuesday. “While our Operations Team installed 500 air-conditioning units this summer, we will continue to use our available resources to install more and to review and update our extreme weather protocols.”
What’s the district’s plan? Why do some schools have air-conditioning and others don’t?
A December survey of all active public school buildings found that 43% of schools had sufficient air-conditioning based on the building’s educational program and student enrollment — meaning that 57% of the district’s buildings were not cool enough.
The cost of air-conditioning units themselves is not the main barrier to cooling classrooms. Instead, it’s the electrical capacity of Philadelphia’s old buildings, and the cost and time it takes to upgrade them.
Taking the district’s workforce into consideration — the school system historically has thousands of facilities work back orders, and there’s a nationwide labor shortage — officials identified 14 schools they could upgrade electrical panels and install air-conditioning in all classrooms over the summer. (Auditoriums, cafeterias, and gyms have generally not been air-conditioned.)
Thirteen of those projects have been finished, and one is still in progress, officials said. Window units were replaced in 30 additional schools, for a total of 532 units installed in 43 schools over the summer.
An additional 42 projects are in the planning, design, or construction phase, scheduled to be completed by the end of 2027.
Schools’ air-conditioning was placed in priority order based on data from the district’s work order management system and facility condition assessment.
“We will revisit our plan to expedite air-conditioning projects in schools, considering our capacity, budget, and the results of the comprehensive facility plan due in late spring of 2023,” spokesperson Christina Clark said in a statement Tuesday. “We still have 58 schools to plan for in order to meet our goal of a fully air-conditioned district by 2027.”
How hot does it get in classrooms?
Sharee Himmons works on the third floor of Fitler Elementary in Germantown, a school that closed early because of the heat.
“It was over 100 degrees by 10 a.m.,” said Himmons, a special-education assistant. “It’s unhealthy to be sitting in there like that — we were all sweaty, lightheaded, tired, cranky.”
The district is full of old buildings, but Fitler is one of its oldest, a three-story stone structure built in 1898. The building traps heat, especially on its upper floors.
Some staff brought in fans to cope, but Fitler’s windows, like many in the district, don’t open all the way.
And Himmons’ school was far from unique. Her children attend Hill-Freedman World Academy and Central High School, both schools on the early-closing list.
“My son who attends Central said even with some air-conditioned rooms, it’s still hot in there,” Himmons said. “And the hallways are so crowded and hot.”
Jordan said the PFT has been hearing about oppressive conditions in schools around the city, a concern for any district, but especially so in Philadelphia, where childhood asthma rates are quite high.
“We don’t want to have kids getting ill, sitting in buildings that are very hot, and the same thing is true for the educators in buildings,” Jordan said. “It’s really important to get these darn buildings wired and air conditioners in every classroom.”
Who is responsible for ensuring kids’ health and safety inside Philadelphia schools?
The district, with its nearly $4 billion budget, is responsible for building conditions and student safety.
But City Councilmember Helen Gym doesn’t think it should be only on the school board’s shoulders.
“School facilities are not solely the school district’s responsibility, and especially not when you have a non-tax-levying, all-volunteer school board,” Gym said. “It doesn’t work like that anywhere, in any other part of Pennsylvania.”
When soaring temperatures caused multiple all-district early dismissals the first weeks of school in 2018, Gym and Jordan of the PFT stood in front of Dunbar Elementary, in North Philadelphia, and called for change.
It hasn’t come quickly enough, Gym said.
Until the city steps in, “I think that we’re going to have these perpetual, intolerable stopgaps,” Gym said. “The beginning of the year is the most important time for any child, for any teacher, and for any school system. I don’t think people understand the kind of damage it does when we are in a permanent state of disruption at the beginning of the year.”
What determines which schools have air-conditioning?
Though the district said its project timeline is now determined by a combination of capacity, work-order management, and facilities’ condition, other considerations have historically factored in.
In other cases, schools with parent groups have been able to fund-raise for cooling units.
At Fanny Jackson Coppin Elementary in South Philadelphia, the Home and School Association fund-raised and installed air-conditioning on the top floor of the building.
“But now with the antiquated electrical system overloaded by air purifiers, Chromebooks, and microwaves, we can’t run it without tripping the whole school,” said Kaci Crooks Vecchio, HSA president. Coppin was supposed to receive an electrical upgrade this summer, but that was delayed.
Parents also paid for 50 fans for the school.
Greenberg Elementary in the Northeast also received 10 room air conditioners through parent donations, but the school still dismissed early Tuesday and will do so Wednesday because not all classrooms are air-conditioned.
“We’re not sure why we’re not in school,” said Amy Forcinito, HSA president. “A lot of people are wondering where did all the COVID money go? Why isn’t the electrical where it needs to be? So many families moved out of the city during COVID. This is building more and more frustration.”
The large scope of work required “means we cannot do all the work at once or as quickly as we would like,” said spokesperson Marissa Orbanek. “It requires a staged approach, which we are pursuing with urgency, as resources allow.”
The district has not said how much it will cost to get all buildings air-conditioned.
Are schools required to have air-conditioning?
There’s no law that requires schools to have air-conditioning.
Why do Philly schools start before Labor Day?
For decades, Philadelphia students began classes in September, the day after Labor Day. That shifted in 2018, when then-Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the district wanted to get students in earlier to maximize learning time on the front end of the school year. Student attendance typically trails off as the weather gets warmer, and drops considerably after Memorial Day.
“We wanted more instructional days earlier in the year,” Hite said in 2018. “Closer to the end of the year, you get into spring-itis and summer-itis. This gives us more days to be in front of children before they sit for any assessments — state, Advanced Placement, SAT.”
Himmons, the Fitler paraprofessional, said parents peppered her with questions about the pre-Labor Day start at dismissal Tuesday.
“I told them I have no clue why we start in August,” Himmons said. “It’s too hot.”