With less than two months left until the start of the new school year, the Hawaii Department of Education is racing against the clock to cool off its most sweltering classrooms.

The state didn’t meet its initial deadline for installing air conditioning in 1,000 classrooms by the end of last year.

But the state is making headway. New air conditioning has been installed in 456 classrooms since Gov. David Ige signed a measure appropriating $100 million to cool down classrooms. And the education department says it is aiming to cool down another 500 classrooms before its new self-imposed deadline of July 1.

Portable air conditioning units were recently installed in a classroom at Campbell High School. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

“We’re actually making a lot of progress,” said Assistant Superintendent Dann Carlson, during a Friday media tour of James Campbell High School in Ewa Beach, one of the handful of schools designated “high priority” to receive air conditioning.

Hot classrooms have long plagued Hawaii’s schools, many of which are not equipped to handle traditional air conditioning units drawing from the electric grid.

So the DOE has turned to so-called “passive cooling projects” to supplement its AC installations. Since May 2016, it has also supplied 461 portable classrooms statewide with heat reflective material, planted trees for shade cover and installed awnings over some buildings. Ceiling fans have been installed in another 139 classrooms.

Of the approximately 11,000 classrooms statewide, only about 4,500, or 41 percent, are equipped with air-conditioning, according to the DOE. That leaves 7,000 classrooms without proper air conditioning.

Teachers say students perform better in cooler classrooms.

“I can tell they’re more focused, they want to work more. They’re not whining so much,” said Darlene Paracuelles, who teaches kindergarten and special needs students at Mililani Waena Elementary School.

Campbell High School, the state’s largest with an enrollment of 3,125, has installed new air conditioning in nine classrooms with the new funding.

The sprawling campus, opened to the media Friday during a DOE tour attended by Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, has gotten new ceiling fans, tinted windows, solar AC units and a soon-to-be-installed “space frame” that will provide shade over a sun-exposed walkway.

Solar panels installed on the roof of a portable classroom at Campbell High School. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat

According to Shayne Greenland, Campbell’s assistant principal, temperatures can reach 100 degrees in some classrooms.  Air conditioning will lower those temperatures by about 30 degrees.

“When everyone feels comfortable in a classroom, great things can happen,” he said.

He said students in hot classrooms have trouble concentrating, feel more sluggish and need to take lots of water breaks.

The DOE stumbled meeting Ige’s initial pledge to air condition 1,000 classrooms by the end of 2016. Contractor bids were unexpectedly high, delaying projects from moving forward.

Back in February, only 209 AC units had been installed among the 1,000 targeted classrooms. Of those 209 rooms, however, only 54 rooms received air conditioning from the $100 million appropriation.

Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, is encouraged that the DOE is inching closer to the 1,000-classroom goal.  But he hopes officials will continue to seek more cost-efficient ways to cool down rooms.

“I think we have to continue to look at what is the best way to fund these projects,” he said. “As we’ve testified before the Board of Education before, is it better to give a lone contractor many projects. Or is it a good idea to give the money to the school and let them use community partners and parents to try and bring the costs down?”

“But at the same time, we have to celebrate what the DOE has done,” Rosenlee added. “We’ll have tens of thousands of children who will have a better learning environment next year.”

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