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Nearly 500 frequently overheated students from Campbell High School came together at the Capitol Thursday morning to send a loud message to Hawaii lawmakers: It is too hot to learn well in their school.
The voices of students and teachers joined together in chants of “We want A.C.!” that reverberated throughout the Capitol rotunda.
“A.C. for J.C.!” students and teachers of James Campbell called out in unison.
They made clear that they have had enough of heat-induced post-lunch torpor and cheap desk fans paid for with teachers’ own money — not to mention the jalousies that remain open just so classrooms can get a little ventilation in exchange for the audio interruptions from nearby lawnmowers and jets flying overhead.
Their goal: Legislative funds for relief for the state’s hottest schools where stuffy 95-degree classrooms are common.
Roughly nine out of every 10 Hawaii public schools lack air conditioning, including those in notoriously sometimes sizzling areas like Ewa Beach and Oahu’s Leeward Coast.
“It gets so hot that I get really bad headaches and have to put my head down,” said Campbell High senior Triston Quitugua, 17, who added that Thursday’s rally was the first time he and his classmates had joined forces to “fight for the same cause.”
Quitugua was among the 470 students from Campbell High who got permission to get out of school to attend the protest. A few dozen teachers also attended.
Press releases announcing the rally included pictures of thermometers that showed temperatures in the 90s at various Ewa Beach schools.
Corey Rosenlee, a Campbell High teacher and organizer of the rally, says the heat is antithetical to learning.
He highlighted studies showing that temperatures above 78 degrees take a toll on student performance, attitude and behavior.
“This is not the way the kids should be learning,” Rosenlee said, describing students who get so hot in class they have to take off their shirts, put cold towels on their head and constantly step outside to get a sip from the water fountain.
“Are we willing to say that some children should be denied their education because the Legislature doesn’t want to fund it?”
Alia Wong/Civil Beat
Campbell High students sign wave
One of the students who spoke at the rally, junior Amanda Thirion, 17, spoke of her experience as a military dependent who has repeatedly moved from state to state. She said that she had never been in a classroom without air conditioning until she moved to Hawaii.
“Never have I seen this lack of concern for student environment,” Thirion said.
There is no chance that the state will install air conditioning in all 287 public schools in the state. That is due to the cost — some estimates put the price of universal installation, which in many cases would require extremely expensive electrical upgrades — as high as $1 billion.
It costs as much as $10 million to put in air conditioning at an older school like Campbell that currently has voltage transformers that Rosenlee jokingly refers to as “the $1 million statues.”
Given the exorbitant cost, the response from the Legislature was pretty much as expected. “We just don’t have the resources to do it,” said Sen. Will Espero, whose district includes Ewa Beach. He acknowledged that the state’s efforts to cool the neediest schools have been “inadequate.”
Espero did help to secure funding for Campbell’s newest building, Saber Hall, which is the only one at the nearly 2,900-student campus with A.C.
“There are no promises but I know that you do have voices, and we (lawmakers) are listening,” Espero said at the rally.
That listening means setting priorities. The Hawaii Department of Education recently announced that it updated its list of schools that have been deemed high-priority on the heat front. Campbell, which is the state’s largest, is now no. 4 after Hickam Elementary, Ewa Beach Elementary and Ilima Intermediate. Others on the list include Aikahi, Kamaile, Kaimiloa and Nimitz elementary schools. This legislative session saw lawmakers set aside $1.5 million to help fund a campus-wide air conditioning system at Aiea Elementary.
Alia Wong/Civil Beat
470 students gather in the Capitol rotunda
But the DOE says it’s taking action. Spokeswoman Dara Young said the department is in the midst of a project to install ceiling fans in schools on Oahu’s Leeward Coast and the Big Island’s southeast coast, while also adding solar-powered ventilators at other schools. The department is also developing a sustainability master plan that will incorporate sustainable, cost-effective cooling methods.
But Rosenlee doesn’t expect the department to make progress that is either quick or substantial enough, and he says the need for AC is urgent.
Beyond the protest of Campbell High students and teachers, those at 23 other schools offered a similar lament, according to Rosenlee, through a letter-writing campaign that is targeting lawmakers.
As for the students who attended the rally, many did so as part of school projects, including for a social studies class called Participation and Democracy — a course that requires students to identify a local problem, develop an “activism plan” and implement a solution. Other students attended on behalf of a range of other courses, including math (data collection), English (letter writing) and science (temperature experiments).
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