As any Baltimore City or Baltimore County parent can tell you, it seemed entirely appropriate that the pandemic-crippled school year of 2021 recently ended not with a bang but a whimper — or, perhaps more accurately, a sweat stain. Dozens of schools had to dismiss students in the final weeks as the June heatwave pushed temperatures above 90 degrees and those classrooms lacking functioning air conditioning systems became intolerably hot. Add this to the list of hardships parents, students, teachers and administrators faced as the COVID-19 pandemic forced a virtual reinvention of public education (from in-person to remote learning to hybrid instruction and in-person again) and even throw in the novelty of periodical cicadas on the playgrounds and you have a circumstance that looks suspiciously like Egypt in the time of Moses. Any other plagues to offer, powers-that-be?
The good news, as reported by The Baltimore Sun’s Liz Bowie, is that those two systems have made considerable progress in upgrading schools that either never had air conditioning in the first place or had limited ability to cool the entirety of a school. In Baltimore City, for example, a system that once had a whopping 75 schools without AC has trimmed that number to 24 in just three years with construction ongoing in 10 of the remaining hot spots. Baltimore County expects all its schools to have air conditioning by the beginning of the next school year, but with this catch — maybe it will work and maybe it won’t. Both the county and the city had to close some schools recently not because they lacked air conditioning but because what they had didn’t work. In at least two cases, there were power outages. Even the best HVAC systems require a reliable source of electricity.
But here’s the bad news: What happened in June with higher temperatures in Maryland is likely to happen again. Schools are no more immune to the impact of climate change on this planet than anyone else. Even those systems that have been blessed with relatively new school buildings and central AC may find it much more challenging to regulate temperatures as thermometer readings climb and storms become more severe. As a U.S. Government Accountability Office report found last year, a lot of the nation’s schools are in pretty bad physical shape, with 41% of districts needing to update or replace heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in at least half of their schools. Improving security and access to technology may be a higher priority for districts, but as the GAO notes, HVAC deficits are their most costly and common shortcoming.
To put it simply: Greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet at an unprecedented pace, the ruinous consequence of burning fossil fuels. NASA has estimated that global temperatures have risen 2.12 degree Fahrenheit since the 19th century mostly because of excess carbon dioxide and it’s no coincidence that the past four years have been among the hottest on record. Shrinking ice sheets, warming oceans, glacial retreat and sea level rise, the evidence confirming this disaster-in-the-making is all around us. Extreme weather is part of that as well. That means dismissing school because of heat — or perhaps overwhelmed AC — is going to become increasingly common. Remote learning can help in this regard, but it also likely requires greater investment in school modernization. And as the GAO notes, that’s going to be a challenge for parts of the country with concentrated poverty that can’t afford to simply raise property taxes to foot the bill.
This challenge can be answered. After all, a school system that can preserve education in the face of the far more formidable foe of COVID-19 can surely hire an army of HVAC technicians. But will they? It’s important to remember how school AC woes triggered Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot to huff and puff about spending money on temporary air conditioning in schools — including some that lacked the wiring to handle the new electrical load — but not always on more costly long-term modernization. Teacher unions, meanwhile, protested against a cooler post-Labor Day school start (which, granted, was pushed by the governor more to accommodate Ocean City tourism than spare schools from late summer heatwaves). Replacing whole school buildings is expensive. But often, that’s the best, most cost-effective strategy if you truly want to keep your buildings open year-round.
The heat is on as the world girds against climate change. A few days off may not prove ruinous to K-12 public education, but added to other plagues like, well, viruses that impact billions, they are problematic. Lesson one in anyone’s education should always be that it is better to be safe than sorry.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.