Editorial: DOE acts to keep students cool

DOE acts to keep students cool

POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Sep 11, 2015

The state Department of Education seems to have broken free of its bureaucratic chokehold in trying to expedite the purchase of as many as 1,000 portable air conditioning units to cool some of the hottest public school classrooms. What a relief—for students and teachers.

Recent record-high temperatures have fueled the public outcry for cooler classrooms. And it appears the DOE is feeling the heat and responding.

A week ago, the DOE posted a notice seeking an exemption from procurement rules to buy up to 1,000 units from any available vendor as long as the price is reasonable. The money will come from heat-abatement funds already allocated to the department.

The emergency request follows the public school system’s purchase of 145 portable units from Lowe’s via the Western State Contracting Alliance price list, exhausting all available stock in Hawaii and on the West Coast, according to the posted notice.

It’s not the ultimate solution to the school heat issue, but it’s definitely a start.

There’s no doubt that at least two recent cases of heat exhaustion—one involving a 5-year-old Mokapu Elementary student who apparently was denied permission to drink water and the other an Ewa Beach Elementary teacher who drove herself to the emergency room—sharpened the DOE’s focus on high temperatures in classrooms.

Some of the 145 new units already in the pipeline will go to Ewa schools, including Campbell High, Ilima Intermediate and Kaimiloa Elementary, which are high on the priority list, DOE spokesman Brent Suyama says.

Meanwhile, community groups and the private sector also are heeding the urgent call for relief. For instance, RevoluSun has donated an off-grid air-conditioning system with battery storage to Kalaheo High School, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen announced Thursday. RevoluSun says the solar air conditioner will cool a 500-square-foot classroom and will be separate from the existing electrical infrastructure.

Such technological innovation is surely needed, as the DOE spends $48 million yearly on electricity and is seeking ways to cool classrooms without adding to its electricity bill.

The DOE has estimated it would cost $1.7 billion to install air conditioning in all public schools. It has implemented pilot projects using solar technology, but those systems require more upfront costs. With so many schools at least 50 years old, many, including Ewa Elementary at the top of the “heat abatement” list, must undergo electrical upgrades before air conditioning can be installed.

The department’s efforts in cooling schools have been slow-going, with only six campuses being removed from the heat abatement list since 2002. Maili Elementary was the first to be taken off the list in 2002 and Lokelani Intermediate is expected to be removed this year.

With that kind of track record, it is important for communities to keep the pressure on the DOE for results. Just outside DOE’s administrative offices on Punchbowl Street Thursday, people held signs emblazoned with “Cool the Schools” and other heat-related slogans.

The hot classroom issue boiled over at Mokapu Elementary recently when five police reports were filed after kindergartners were denied access to their water bottles. One parent took her son to the emergency room due to the heat. The parents claimed the kindergarten teacher hadn’t allowed students to leave water bottles at their desks and often denied permission for them to get up and drink from their bottles stored near a sink.
This may be an extreme example, but it shows the real health hazards of extreme heat.

We commend the DOE’s recent surge in activity. It’s a good start. But with more extremely hot and muggy weather forecast for the months ahead, the accelerated effort must continue.

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