Air conditioners in every classroom? Not a chance. But TDSB has a plan to keep schools cool

Air conditioners in every classroom? Not a chance. But TDSB has a plan to keep schools cool

Temperatures aren’t yet soaring, but Toronto’s public school board is outlining ways to keep cool when mercury levels rise.

Setting up misting zones, installing window blinds to block direct sunlight and getting rid of window limiters that restrict openings beyond four inches are some strategies being rolled out or considered, according to a Toronto District School Board report.

But installing full-building air conditioning in all schools — a move parents of children who endure sweltering classroom conditions would surely welcome — is “virtually impossible,” says the staff report.

That would be a “major project” costing up to $400 million, with an extra $4.5 million in annual maintenance and utility costs, says a report to be presented at the Finance, Budget and Enrolment Committee meeting Thursday. The “sheer number of buildings” that need upgrades to the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) system and the electrical power supply “make the capital requirements impossible to meet.”

“TDSB has been at a substantial disadvantage relative to other boards as the majority of its buildings are older, poorly designed from an HVAC perspective, with limited power supply sources,” it reads. “The TDSB currently experiences a multi-billion dollar backlog of repair work, which prevents it from undertaking initiatives to increase the total number of air-conditioned buildings.”

Air-conditioning costs “are so massive that a dedicated program must be devised at the provincial level,” notes the report. “It is inconceivable that any regular renewal or school improvement funding program can even come close to financing a program of such scale.”

The board’s repair backlog is almost $4 billion. For the 2019-20 school year, the Ministry of Education is investing about $1.4 billion province-wide — with $292 million earmarked for the TDSB — to maintain and improve schools. Boards can also use their existing School Renewal Allocation (SRA) to install new air-conditioning systems in existing schools — the TDSB will receive $47 million through the SRA for the next school year.

“School boards are provided the responsibility and flexibility to allocate these funds, while complying with appropriate guidelines, to address the needs of their communities, including the repair or replacement of air-conditioning systems in existing schools,” said ministry spokesperson Heather Irwin.

The TDSB report is an update on its cooling centres. Currently, 172 of the board’s 582 schools are air-conditioned. Those without air conditioning, have a permanent cooling centre, usually in the gym, or a temporary one, often in the library. Cooling centres are air-conditioned spaces that allow classes to rotate through them on days of extreme heat. A four-year plan is underway to get permanent cooling centres installed in all schools that do not have air conditioning by September 2021.

The government prohibits schools from fundraising for things covered by provincial grants, such as air conditioning. And, the board can’t accept donated air conditioners because of safety concerns if they’re not installed correctly and an increased potential for electrical overload due to limited circuits in classrooms.

“We understand it can be very uncomfortable in some of our schools where there is no air conditioning … It can be hard to concentrate,” says TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. “We’re doing the very best we can with the limited resources we have.”

The challenge is that many TDSB schools are old and summers are getting warmer, with heat waves more common in June and September. Schools are on average 60 years old — twice the age of those in Peel, Durham and York — with most built in the mid 1950s to accommodate emerging baby boom students. Some even date to the late 1800s, including John Fisher Public School, Fern Avenue Public School and Winchester Public School.

The report addresses a “new global reality where climate change is impacting weather patterns” and includes historical data for June and September going back to 1955. It says the number of days with maximum temperatures higher than 28 C, and 30 C, are on the rise and have intensified since 2004.

The Star analyzed Toronto temperature data for those months over the past century. In 2018, for instance, there were 13 days with temperatures above 28 C, compared with three days in 1918. In 2017, 2016 and 2015, there were 10, 16 and eight days, respectively where temperatures rose above 28. And in 2005 — along with 1921 and 1949 — there were a record 22 days above 28 degrees.

Trustee Shelley Laskin told the Star the TDSB last year requested permission from the province to close schools on extreme heat days, but never heard back.

“Even with the cooling initiatives that we can do, some of the buildings are very hot and room temperatures get very hot,” she said. “There is an ability for us to close our schools for snow or extreme cold, but there isn’t a reciprocal arrangement and we think the government needs to think about that.”

The TDSB report outlines several initiatives to improve conditions. Beginning this spring, schools will run ventilation systems on fresh air before dawn to pump cool air inside; and the board will upgrade its replacement window standards to better reduce heat gain and reflect sunlight.

A new pilot project at a school will eliminate window limiters — a safety measure to prevent kids from falling out of windows — and use new hardware that permits the whole window to be pushed out, allowing better air flow, while still complying with building codes. Other options being considered include installing wall fans in classrooms; blinds on windows facing direct sunlight; and misting zones outside schools — pilot projects have tested out these initiatives, which were well-received.

When temperatures soar, media reports surface about classroom conditions, with parents complaining their children are nauseous, light-headed, tired and unable to focus. Heat impacts learning, according to a 2018 study led by Harvard University that examined standardized test scores of 10 million American high school students, between 2001 and 2014, and found a significant link between higher temperatures and lower achievement.

Krista Wylie, co-founder of Fix our Schools — a non-partisan, parent-led, Ontario-wide campaign for publicly funded schools that are safe, healthy and well-maintained — applauds the initiatives in the TDSB report, calling them creative and solution-oriented. She urges parents who want air conditioning in schools to contact provincial officials, such as the minister of education, the premier and their local MPP.

“The province is not seeming to want to come forward with any funding specific to air conditioning,” said Wylie. “A good argument could be made that it would be an efficient use of money to increase the effectiveness of the education that is delivered and received in classrooms for one fifth of the year.”

With files from Andrew Bailey

Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74

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