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Detroit’s half day for heat spotlights district’s air conditioning problem

In a close-up of a student’s hands in math class, worksheets and a calculator are spread across the desk.

Tuesday’s hot weather prompted officials at Detroit Public Schools Community District to let students and staff out early, in large part because of a lack of air conditioning in a majority of buildings.

Anthony Lanzilote for Chalkbeat

Mikia Lee, a senior at Osborn High School, was more than happy to leave school early Tuesday after the Detroit district cut the day short because of the heat.

By 12:30 p.m., as thousands of students across the district walked outdoors to wait for rides or catch buses, the temperature had risen to 88 degrees. Later in the day, it would hit 90.

When it’s that hot outside, in a school without air conditioning, “you tend to really not focus, and the teachers struggle to get students to cooperate,” Mikia said.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made the call to end the day early in all the Detroit district’s in-person schools, figuring the heat inside classrooms would make teaching and learning more difficult. (The virtual school stayed open.)

But he’s also focused on a longer-term solution: a $125 million investment that would bring air conditioning to nearly all of the district’s school buildings.

The investment is part of the Detroit Public Schools Community District’s $700 million facility plan approved by the school board this month. When the project is complete in five years, 95% of school buildings will have functioning air conditioning, compared with just 35% today. Buildings that cannot accommodate a modern HVAC system may need to be phased out or rebuilt, Vitti said.

Vitti said the investment in air conditioning is vital to boosting student and staff morale, especially in the warmer months. 

“On high temperature days such as today, without AC, hot classrooms and schools can lead to students overheating, sweating, and generally being irritated,” he said.

He added: “This leads to students not being able to focus on learning, which can lead to behavior issues.”

Recent studies suggest heat waves and hot weather conditions do take a toll on students, particularly students from low-income families and Black and Hispanic students, who are more likely to attend schools with little or no air conditioning.

A 2018 study from the Harvard Kennedy School examining the impact of consistent heat exposure on learning found that the hotter the classroom, the lower students tend to score on standardized tests. Air conditioning offsets that impact and improves their performance, the study found.

After school Tuesday, Mikia sat on a bench near Osborn’s entrance, enjoying shade from a tree overhead while she waited for a ride home.

Classrooms at Osborn were sparser than normal on Tuesday, said Mikia, who noticed fewer students and staff walking through the hallways. Osborn has a lot of electric fans, she said, but “they’re not in every classroom, so sometimes (students) end up with the short end of the stick.”

“The heat just sets off everyone’s temper,” Mikia said. “People don’t want to be bothered. They don’t want to be spoken to.”

“I didn’t think they’d let us out because the weather was harsh,” she said. “But I appreciate it.”

A few miles away at Pershing High School, Lashawnda Anderson and her friend Montayja Hickman sheltered from the afternoon heat under door awnings at dismissal time. As with Osborn, only some classrooms had fans, they said. Their ROTC teacher passed out water bottles to students to help them cool off.

Their building was built in 1930. Under the district’s facility plan, Pershing is set to be torn down and rebuilt on the same location. Lashawnda says she’s happy with the decision and thinks if Pershing had air conditioning, “we could be in the building all day.”

Tanesha Griffin, a sophomore at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, said she’s accustomed to the hot weather because she’s a softball player. 

She was a little surprised that the district made Tuesday a half day, even at schools like King that have air conditioning. Only certain sections of the building, like the lunchroom, get unbearable in the heat, she said. 

“Some people can’t function when they’re hot, but you’ve still got to go to school no matter what,” she said. 

Detroit temperatures were set to cool down by late Wednesday, but summer is approaching. Vitti said students and families won’t have to worry about heat advisories disrupting summer learning. The district is setting up summer school in district buildings with air conditioning.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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