Days before the school year started, New York City officials said they made good on a major promise: ensuring every public school classroom has air conditioning.
But as students and educators returned to their classrooms, some were still sweltering.
A Queens parent said her kindergarten son came home during the opening weeks of school flushed and sweaty. A Bronx student interrupted her teacher multiple times to complain about the heat. And a Brooklyn high school teacher fears his students will continue to cope by dragging their desks into the hallway to catch a whiff of cool air from other rooms with AC.
Five years ago, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio promised universal air conditioning by 2022. The city has made big strides, pouring more than $400 million into upgrading electrical systems and purchasing air conditioners for nearly 17,000 additional spaces — roughly 28% of classrooms citywide. It’s a significant accomplishment given aging infrastructure in many school buildings. And the upgrades bring some relief as climate change will likely spur longer and more frequent heat waves.
Yet dozens of educators, students, and parents said there are still gaps in air conditioning coverage. In some cases, AC units were installed, but have fallen into disrepair and have not been fixed or replaced. In others, units have yet to be delivered, or school officials are waiting for upgrades to outdated electrical systems before switching them on. Some areas — including auditoriums and gyms — were never guaranteed air conditioning in the first place.
“I kind of laughed when they said everyone had an AC,” said Matthew Kennedy, a history teacher at Antonia Pantoja Preparatory Academy in the Bronx whose classroom does not have air conditioning. “It’s a premature pat on the back.”
In Kennedy’s classroom, students often complain about the heat the moment they walk in. On hot days, he forgoes direct instruction in favor of group work. “When you’re combating the heat the last thing the kids want is to hear you talk,” he said.
The situation is particularly challenging in the spring when he is working to prepare his students for Regents exams, which are typically required to graduate in New York. He often resorts to propping his windows open with textbooks so they don’t slam shut.
Kennedy said his room was slated for air conditioning, but the units that arrived were the wrong size, and new ones have yet to appear.
“The whole building has AC — it’s just like somehow we got lost in the shuffle,” he said.
Hot classrooms aren’t just uncomfortable — they can also adversely affect learning, researchers have found.
One New York City study showed that students who took Regents exams on 90-degree days were 11% more likely to fail an exam than on a 72-degree day. Heat can have detrimental effects beyond a single testing day: Students who took the PSAT in the fall performed worse if it was hot during the previous year and their school didn’t have AC, according to a national study.
“It’s not just one day, one test. It’s the accumulation of knowledge over the course of a year,” said Jonathan Smith, an economics professor at Georgia State University who co-authored the PSAT study. “Heat can certainly have an impact on people’s ability to learn.”
School years in New York City often include more than 30 days of temperatures of at least 80 degrees, according to an analysis of federal data. Even temperatures below that threshold can have a negative effect on student learning.
When the city first announced plans to outfit every school with air conditioning they indicated plans to spend nearly $29 million over five years to purchase and install the units with another $50 million in capital costs for electrical upgrades. The goal was to outfit 11,500 additional classrooms with air conditioning.
But the costs and scope of the project have ballooned. The city wound up adding AC to about 16,720 classrooms — at one point miscounting the number of rooms that needed it. The capital costs have grown to $380 million for electrical upgrades at 750 buildings, said Kevin Ortiz, a spokesperson for the School Construction Authority, or SCA.
Education department officials said they could not produce a full accounting of how much they spent purchasing and installing units. City records show the cost of purchasing and installing each unit is now $2,343, though officials said the number was lower in previous years without specifying an exact number. (Roughly 19,000 units have been purchased in total.) Including capital costs, the total outlay for air conditioning is likely well above $400 million — more than five times the education department’s initial estimate.
“Our Division of School Facilities is committed to creating safe and comfortable learning environments for our students,” education department spokesperson Jenna Lyle wrote in a statement. “We are proud of the work that has been done in partnership with the SCA to place air conditioners in all applicable NYC classrooms that previously lacked units.”