It’s a little after noon Friday, and the 30 or so eighth-grade students in an Ilima Intermediate School classroom are busy working in teams on their first-quarter project: an assignment to reinvent their favorite songs with lyrics about plate tectonics.
But these middle-schoolers have more to contend with than science lessons about the Earth’s crust.
The temperature in the room — referred to by some as “the desert” — is in the low-90s. Photos taken on a thermal-imaging camera, however, show certain parts of the room reaching more than 101 degrees.
Portable fans blasting from corners of the second-story room do little to alleviate the Ewa Beach heat. Neither do the half-open awning windows that extend across the classroom’s back wall.
Teacher Diana Chun says it’s even worse when the projector is on; sometimes she leaves the lights off during the entire class period to keep the space as cool as possible.
And this day, say a number of students and teachers, is one of the coolest they’ve had this school year.
Meanwhile, the state appears to be making little headway on efforts to bring air conditioning to more schools.
Ilima Intermediate, which was built in 1962 and serves about 820 students in grades seven and eight, is one of the 242 regular public schools across Hawaii that lack central air conditioning.
The hot conditions have always been a problem, but teachers and students say it’s particularly bad this school year. Classes started a little more than a month ago, as did a new, extended bell schedule that has some days ending at 3 p.m. A wave of exceptionally hot weather, meanwhile, has plagued the islands recently.
Some of the students in Chun’s classroom are fanning themselves with folders or books. Many of their foreheads are glistening with sweat. A few are perspiring so much that their clothing — blue cotton T-shirts and long pants, as mandated by the school’s uniform policy — is damp.
Some research suggests that the optimal classroom temperature is in the low-70s.
Chun does what she can to keep her students as comfortable. She lets them go out to drink water as often as they want and tells them to bring in paper towels to wipe their faces if they need to.
For the most part, “they make do,” Chun says. But that doesn’t mean they don’t complain — one of many distractions caused by the heat.
The high temperatures force teachers to interrupt class time to allow for breaks, and require that windows are left open. At Ilima Intermediate, beneath the flight path for Honolulu International Airport, that means classes are often interrupted by roaring airplanes. And then there’s the dust.
The heat can take a toll on students’ attention.
“On those hot days when there are no trade winds and it’s very stifling, you notice that by about sometime around 11 and 12 the kids, they just start dropping off in terms of their attention span,” said Andrew Jones, an English teacher at Radford High near Pearl Harbor. “Particularly if I’m trying to do something cognitively challenging … the kids lose their ability to focus after about 83 or 84 degrees.”
Jones said his students often get into arguments over who gets to sit by the fans. More than half of Radford High’s students are military dependents, and many of them have studied in hot states where AC is the norm.
Back at Ilima Intermediate, eighth-grade students in another science classroom — that of teacher Terra Osborn — tell Civil Beat the heat gives them headaches and makes it difficult to concentrate. They point out that, unlike the room they’re in now, some classes don’t even have fans.
Petriese Peralta, 13, said she occasionally gets dizzy, especially if she forgets to bring her water to school.
“It bothers me how much (some of the boys) sweat,” joked Nisla Flores-Manrique, also 13.
Osborn, who purchased each of her classroom’s four fans with her own money, echoed her students’ concerns. “They are tired, they already have sleep issues, and at this age with the hormones and bodies changing, the hygiene issue comes up a lot,” she said. “The overall smell of our classrooms can get pretty obnoxious … by the end of the day, everyone is just uncomfortable.”
Sometimes the heat is more than just a distraction. A day earlier, an Ilima Intermediate student was so overheated and dehydrated that she fainted during one class after a morning P.E. session, according to Principal Jon Henry Lee.
“You’re looking at a really, really long day in a hot classroom, and if you don’t drink enough water you’re going to run into some issues,” Lee said.
Ilima Intermediate is a patchwork of one- and two-story beige buildings, sidewalks stained with red dirt and lawns marked by patches of dry grass. Some corridors occasionally transmit light crosswinds, but the campus is mostly hot and still. Sometimes students break the rules and run through the sprinklers to cool off.
Teachers at Ilima Intermediate, which is considered a low-income school, worry the hot conditions could be putting a damper on students’ performance.
And while the school itself is performing well on proficiency and growth measures compared to the other two middle schools in the area, including one with AC, Lee wonders whether students could achieve even more if classrooms were cooler.
Unlike most sweltering schools, relief could soon be on the way for Ilima Intermediate, which is ranked second on the DOE’s nine-school “AC priority list.”
But getting AC is contingent on whether the department can secure the funding — a prospect that’s up in the air.
“We keep hearing that (AC’s) coming, but when you keep hearing it and don’t see any action, especially during this heat wave, it’s definitely difficult to foresee relief coming anytime soon,” Osborn said.
Lee, the principal, also said there’s a lot of red tape.
Just 13 of the state’s public schools, most of which are relatively new and six of which are in Kapolei or Mililani, currently have AC. Hickam Elementary at the Air Force Base is the newest addition to that list, having just completed its AC project this year.
The last school to make it off the priority list was Kihei’s Lokelani Intermediate, which was ranked No. 2 in 2006 and has been undergoing AC installation since 2008. That project is slated for completion next year.
These are the schools with central AC on campus, according to the DOE:
Not all of the other 242 schools are considered in need of AC. Many, particularly newer schools, are strategically located and designed to enhance ventilation and render central cooling unnecessary.
Teachers also suggest there are dozens of classrooms across the state that are already equipped with their own small AC units, often thanks to private donations.
Meanwhile, the Hawaii Department of Education is working on a plan that emphasizes more sustainable methods of cooling classrooms and aims to cut costs by $24 million over five years. After all, AC uses a lot of electricity in a state with the highest electricity rates, and the DOE’s utility bill is already $60 million a year.
Ray L’Heureux, who just this week stepped down as the DOE’s assistant superintendent for facilities, noted that the department is testing out a solar-powered AC unit to gauge its viability at schools.
L’Heureux also stressed that the DOE has long had a “heat abatement” plan, which includes the department’s survey of temperatures at schools in hot areas and strategies for implementing cooling methods. Hence the priority list.
“I agree that it’s a clear and present concern that we want to address … but we should have a standardized acceptance of what is the norm in all of our schools,” L’Heureux said.
These are the schools on the DOE’s AC priority list:
For many teachers at hot, poorly designed schools, having a plan isn’t enough.
“The single biggest factor in my job dissatisfaction beyond anything else is the lack of AC,” said Jones, the Radford High teacher. “It has a major effect on teachers’ stamina, their capacity to do their job, and that in turn ultimately results in less results for the students.”
Jones, who’s worked as a teacher for 12 years, said the conditions are so bad it’s even prompted him to explore other job options. Average temperatures at Radford High can reach the high-80s, but the heat often seems worse than it is because of its location, Jones said.
Many of the state’s aging schools lack the electrical capacity to run them. Hawaii’s public school buildings are 65 years old on average.
Among those schools is Campbell High, which has spearheaded a campaign led by teachers and students to advocate for classroom cooling. Campbell sits right next to Ilima Intermediate and is No. 3 on the list, but its AC project would need to include electrical upgrades as well.
The Campbell campaign intensified a year ago, when nearly 500 of the school’s students rallied at the Capitol to urge lawmakers to fund campus AC.
Campbell, whose current Ewa Beach campus is about 40 years old, has become a symbol for some of the most pressing challenges facing Hawaii school facilities: overcrowding and, of course, overheating. (Civil Beat wrote about these issues in a two-part series last year.)
At first, the protest was met with encouraging results: both the DOE and Gov. Neil Abercrombie requested $25 million in their supplemental budget proposals to help pay for school AC, an indication that they considered the problem a top priority.
But lawmakers on the budget committees, including the Democratic candidate for governor, David Ige, denied the request.
Meanwhile, a bill that would’ve required the DOE to conduct a survey of schools’ needs and develop a “master cooling strategy” died in the last minute this past session, despite garnering strong support from lawmakers and community members.
“Only in Hawaii do we allow our children in 95-degree heat,” said Campbell High teacher and activist Corey Rosenlee, noting that similar temperatures prompted districts in the Midwest and Colorado to close schools last year.
Why has it proven so difficult to cool off Hawaii’s hottest classrooms?
The decision-makers who have some clout over school facilities — from legislators to DOE administrators — often reason that they’re handicapped by forces outside their control: intense competition for meager state funds, old school facilities and bureaucratic protocols that hinder quick solutions, to name a few.
“It’s a big rock to push uphill,” L’Heureux said. “Quite frankly, without the resources, the dollars, to attack the problem in earnest still just isn’t feasible.”
L’Heureux went on to indicate that the onus is largely on the Legislature: “For anything to get accomplished in the state, from a capital perspective, it needs resources. And those resources can only come from one place.”
Hawaii ranks last in the country for school-related capital improvement funding, spending just $294 per pupil per year on facilities.
The DOE estimates it would cost more than $1 billion to put AC in all schools, money that has to come from funding earmarked for capital improvement projects.
Ige, who until recently chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee, has told Civil Beat that he and his colleagues in the Legislature were forced to derail the measures related to school cooling because of the state’s downgraded revenue forecast.
But the inertia has people wondering if the state is dragging its feet. Some teachers suggest that the perennial inability of state officials to solve something that has even been described as a public health crisis reveals how little they’re invested in public education.
That frustration is evident in the dozens of comments teachers have posted about the hot conditions on the Facebook page for Hawaii Teachers Work to the Rules, a grassroots teachers organization based out of Campbell.
Officials insist progress is being made. For example, the DOE points out that it recently added ceiling fans to hundreds of classrooms at 15 schools on Oahu’s Waianae Coast and the Big Island’s southeast coast.
The department is also in the process of assessing the adequacy and condition of facilities statewide and expects to finalize a plan by next June, L’Heureux says.
Meanwhile, the Legislature provides piecemeal funding for heat abatement, including AC, at certain schools.
For example, this year’s supplementary state budget included capital improvement funding for Ilima Intermediate and Campbell High: $1 million and $2.3 million, respectively.
But the money has yet to be released by the governor, and the allocations certainly wouldn’t cover the total costs for campus-wide AC at those schools, which the DOE estimates is $13 million and $8 million. The estimated cost of AC at Ewa Beach Elementary, the first school on the priority list, is $5 million.
All cooling projects at the DOE are competitively bid. And the cost of AC isn’t limited to the price of a unit and its maintenance. Other expenses can include electrical system upgrades, roof insulation and new windows and doors to ensure the cool air doesn’t leak to the outside.
“It’s a mountain of work to do with regards to attacking the AC piece,” L’Heureux said. “It’s not just going out there and buying AC units and sticking them in windows.”