As trade winds blow less frequently and temperatures stubbornly remain at record highs, the Hawaii Department of Education announced a new policy Thursday that it hopes will empower schools to take the lead in cooling classrooms.

The DOE met its goal in August 2017 of cooling 1,000 classrooms with a $100 million legislative appropriation through the much-touted “Cool Classrooms Initiative.” But with those funds now depleted, there are still roughly 5,000 classrooms statewide without air conditioning.

The department is now trying to streamline the self-installation of window AC units by offering to provide an assessment of a school’s electrical capacity to handle the units and recommend which ones are best. It’s then up to the school to install the AC units through a donation or fundraising or its own budget.

The DOE is billing this new process the “School Directed AC Program.” It’s completed 40 such technical assessments since last fall, paving the way for 52 schools to install— and self-subsidize — 200 new window AC units.

“The spirit of the school directed AC program is to help the schools help themselves,” said John Chung, DOE public works administrator.

Thermal image taken in classroom at Ilima Intermedate in Ewa Beach on September 12, 2014. The Celsius temperature reading of 35.0 in the upper left corner is equal to 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
This thermal image was taken in classroom at Ilima Intermediate in Ewa Beach in 2014. The Celsius temperature reading of 35.0 in the upper left corner is equal to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The DOE’s $100 million “Cool Classrooms Initiative” included not just the installation of new air-conditioning units, but alternative cooling methods like solar-powered air conditioning and passive cooling methods like ceiling fans, insulation and heat-reflective paint.

But not all the installations have been fail-proof: out of the 1,000 solar panel systems that were installed, a handful are malfunctioning, according to Chung. This is due to issues with batteries and computer hardware and the department is working to address those deficiencies, he said.

Many schools are still sweltering because they haven’t been outfitted with AC or other passive cooling methods, or just aren’t equipped to handle AC units.

DOE schools have always had the ability to procure and install their own AC units in classrooms, according to Chung.

But they had to first demonstrate the classrooms had the electrical capacity to support AC units by verifying the technical specifications, not to mention get approval from multiple DOE offices to install AC. Meeting the technical requirement is the hardest and most crucial step — which is why this new policy helps streamline the process, Chung said.

More than half of the 256 DOE schools are past their prime, with some buildings topping 100 years old. That means some buildings might not be able to handle the circuitry of a new AC unit. Do-it-yourself AC installations, without the proper checks, could lead to blown circuits.

The technical assessments are being performed by outside consultants and can take up to several days. They are being funded through remaining funds under the Heat Abatement design contract, according to Chung.

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

According to estimates from the Hawaii State Teachers Association, an average DOE classroom would need two commercial-grade, 2-ton window AC units to properly cool the room at a total cost of about $3,200.

In a press release Thursday, the HSTA encouraged schools to come up with the money to purchase and install AC units through a fundraiser or booster groups or by working with state legislators “to appropriate funds during the next legislative session that begins in January 2020.”

HSTA President Corey Rosenlee called the DOE’s new process “a really great step.”

“By allowing schools officially to put in wall units, thousands of classrooms that couldn’t have AC … can put it in affordably and don’t have to wait,” he said.

According to Rosenlee, more DOE schools today are also in a better position to install energy-efficient window AC units since many schools have replaced fluorescent light bulbs with LED lights, reducing their energy usage and expanding their electrical load to run AC units, through a $46 million legislative appropriation from Hawaii’s green infrastructure special fund.

All of Oahu’s 171 public schools now have LED lights and more than half the neighbor island schools have them, according to HSTA.

The state’s 36 public charter schools are not impacted by the new AC policy, since they’re responsible for finding and paying for their own facilities, upgrades and assessments.

On the official HSTA Facebook page, some teachers cheered the DOE’s new direction in policy while others questioned the electrical capacity at their school or ability to come up with the money.

“If your school does not have the funding, we suggest that you contact your state representative or senator to advocate for funding,” the HSTA administrator managing the thread wrote. “This policy also dramatically lowers the cost of putting AC in our classrooms, which makes it easier for legislators to advocate for funding.”

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