Too hot to teach? Madison teachers say lack of air conditioning affecting student learning

MADISON, Wis. – With classroom temperatures reaching as high as 88 degrees Wednesday, staff members at Franklin Elementary are finding it hard to teach in the heat and they’re asking district officials to bring in air conditioning.

Teachers said it’s not the first time they’ve struggled with a lack of air conditioning but Wednesday was the worst they’ve experienced, and though they’ve taken measures to manage it’s not enough.

“It really feels like we’re in a sauna. We’re just sweating, we’re irritable, we’re tired.” said Franklin Elementary first grade teacher Amy Turkowski. “It’s hard to teach, it’s hard to work and more importantly it’s hard for them to learn.”

Fellow first grade teacher Becca Danz said it’s been especially hard dealing with the heat on the heels Covid-19, as they are already working to close the learning gap the pandemic left for many students.

“We’ve been flexible for so many things for so long that every little thing is kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back in a way,” Danz said.

Madison Metropolitan School District spokesperson Tim Lemonds said leadership is aware of the challenges teachers are facing and that the district is taking steps to help them manage the heat.

According to Lemonds, the district is taking the following measures to ensure student safety:

  • Monitoring conditions and communicating any decisions as soon as they are made.
  • Encouraging families to send water bottles with their student(s)
  • Rotating students through air-conditioned spaces in the building when needed.
  • Ensuring school buildings are provided with fans to increase airflow. Utilizing “cool zones” – cooler or air-conditioned areas of the building (may be library, office, lower levels, etc.)
  • Allowing unlimited access to water with scheduled “hydration” breaks throughout the day.  All schools are equipped with water coolers and bottle filling stations in numbers which exceed required minimums.
  • Avoiding prolonged exposure to outdoors sun and heat
  • Limiting strenuous outdoor activities or strenuous indoor activities unless in an air conditioned area.
  • Encouraging dressing appropriately in lightweight clothing
  • Staying in shady areas if outside
  • Health office staff are monitoring students for heat exhaustion/stroke.  We are also providing access to cooling spaces, water, ice packs, or cool compresses for comfort as needed
  • Building services staff are increasing maximum cooling set points on air conditioning systems for off-school hours, where possible, to keep buildings cool overnight.

However Danz believes these measures aren’t effective and some can even make teaching and managing a classroom harder.

“That’s just time away from instruction,” Danz said. “If you’re sending one kid to the office, five others are going to want to follow to the office and so it helps but it’s disruptive and it’s not a sustainable solution.”

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Teachers also said they get one fan per classroom which isn’t enough and some have resorted to bringing fans from home and giving students makeshift ice packs to help mitigate the heat.

Danz said parents have also stepped up by offering to provide some classrooms with air conditioners but that goes against MMSD Board of Education Policy.

According to Lemonds that’s because there needs to be maintenance consistency across all district buildings and more than that it’s a safety issue.

“All of these appliances require a dedicated circuit and using these appliances can cause circuit overloading,” he explained.

He said the district is working with engineering consultants to study the existing hvac and electrical systems in all their buildings with the goal of complete replacement but added the timeline is based on budgetary limitations.

Franklin Elementary teachers said they understand change takes time but believe a good place to start making this issue a priority is by getting the word out.

“I would love it if somebody who makes the decisions actually spend some time in the building,” Turkowski said. “Spend a few hours, not even the whole day.”

Lemonds also said the district would close schools generally only when an Excessive Heat Warning is issued based on guidelines from the National Weather Service.

Wednesday was an Alert Day for heat and humidity, and the National Weather Service marked record-breaking temperatures for the day with a high of 91 degrees; the previous record for May 11 in Madison was 85 degrees, but this time of year, temperatures are typically 68 degrees.