Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Advocates urged PPS to air-condition schools in 2022. Now students are learning remotely due to heat

A doormat reading Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools announced Wednesday that students at 40 district schools would learn remotely on Thursday and Friday as the National Weather Service expects temperatures in the 90s. And problems with the district's infrastructure are likely to worsen other heat waves in the future.

District school buildings are an average of 89 years old and many lack the infrastructure needed for central air conditioning. Superintendent Wayne Walters announced a new extreme heat protocol on Tuesday for schools that lack “sufficient air conditioning systems."

And a message from the district sent to families on Tuesday noted that exposure to excessive heat can cause illness. According to the message, the district may shift schools to remote learning or take "other actions” in the event that buildings are too hot.

WESA Inbox Edition Newsletter

Want more stories about our education system? Sign up for our newsletter and we'll send you Pittsburgh's top news, every weekday morning.

Last summer, James Fogarty, the executive director of A+ Schools, urged the district to use some of its federal COVID relief money to install wall-mounted units to keep kids in schools. He estimated it would cost about $1 million. District officials did not respond to his request or publicly explain why it hadn’t made such a move.

A+ Schools has worked in one of the buildings without air conditioning: Pittsburgh Perry High School on the North Side.

“I would see teachers who had taught a full day just dripping sweat … and they would find that kids would come in and they would be like ‘I’m too hot’ and walk out of the building,” Fogarty recalled.

At the time, 42 percent of students throughout the district were chronically absent meaning they had missed more than 10 percent of days. Now that rate is 35 percent overall. Fogarty notes that there is not a correlation in the district between schools with air conditioning and a high attendance rate, but he said that hot buildings could deter more students from attending. And when he spoke to the board during the June 2022 public hearing, Fogarty cited research from the National Bureau of Economic Research that found heat exposure reduced the rate of learning.

Requests to speak with Superintendent Wayne Walters went unanswered Wednesday. In a statement, Chief Operations Officer Mike McNamara said the district wants air conditioning in all buildings and is installing full systems in four schools this summer.

McNamara said those will be in addition to four other schools that were outfitted with air conditioning systems in the last few years.

He said the district is using money from ESSER — the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund — to evaluate and repair HVAC systems across the district. But he did not explain why the district hasn't used funds for temporary systems, as Fogarty called for, in other schools.

In a press release, Walters said that leaders will monitor indoor temperatures on days forecasted to exceed 85 degrees to determine if the school will shift to remote learning.

“As we enter the summer months, it was important to establish an extreme heat protocol for our facilities without sufficient air conditioning systems,” Walters said in the release. Doing so, he argued, would "elevate transparency in our decision-making process and help families and staff plan should there be a need to shift instruction virtually."

Over the long term, school board members say they are in early discussions of potentially closing or consolidating schools. The district has lost 18.5 percent of students since 2016, leaving it with excess capacity.

Fogarty hopes those discussions are forward-thinking and take into account factors like global warming.

"I think it's time to think in terms of the next generation and kind of the next hundred years of buildings and what kind of investments we need to make," he said. "And I don't think we can do it with the current capital structure."