IN THE NEWS: Students need relief now from hot classrooms

OUR VIEW

Students need relief now from hot classrooms


POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 23, 2015

While students, educators and communities scrape together dollars for fans to add to the patchwork cooling of public schools, the state Department of Education is knocking schools off its “heat abatement” priority list at a snail’s pace.

Some schools, such as Campbell High School, have been raising their hand for air conditioning for the better part of a decade. Campbell is No. 3 on DOE’s priority list for upgrades, trailing Ewa Beach Elementary and Ilima Intermediate.

But the DOE is mired in bureaucracy while students wilt in sauna-like conditions, some contending with 100-plus degrees in their classrooms.

It’s a recurring theme when DOE embarks on major capital improvements: Experts are called, studies and surveys are done, reports are published, plans are made. In some cases, somewhere along the line the department does a study to confirm the outcome of the first study and then we wait … and wait for something, anything, to happen.

It would be misleading to say that nothing is being done, but progress is painstakingly slow. The DOE spent $110,000 per classroom at Pohakea Elementary in Ewa Beach to remove it from the priority list. It is one of only six schools checked off the list since 2002.

Six schools in 13 years is nothing to be proud of.

Bureaucrats can conduct as many grand-scale studies as they want, but in the meantime, interim fixes can and should be made. A DOE spokeswoman contends small fixes are being completed and energy consultants are being tapped to come up with low-cost or no-cost solutions.

But when teachers, students, community members, businesses and individual lawmakers must take matters into their own hands, it’s a sign of dire times. Take, for example, state Rep. Matt LoPresti, who on Wednesday launched a “Cool Schools 4 Ewa” initiative, which already generated a donation of 54 fans for area schools. Campbell, Ewa and Ewa Beach elementaries each received 16 fans and Ilima Intermediate got six. Cool Schools 4 Ewa seeks donations from businesses for fans and air conditioners for Ewa schools.

This past spring, creative Campbell students raised $19,000-plus in a crowdfunding project for a solar-powered air condition- ing units for a classroom. Maybe that’s what is needed to chip away at DOE’s estimated $1.7 billion cost to install AC in all 256 schools — fundraising. Public-private partnerships could quicken the pace of upgrades — but really, does the DOE have to rely on community goodwill to get things done?

One bright spot is DOE’s piloting of newer technology that could bring down the costs of installing AC, including photovoltaic air conditioning (PV/AC). A portable classroom at Waianae High School is in its second year running a system using three PV panels for each air conditioning unit. That system costs about $8,000 and operates at a fraction of the electricity cost of conventional AC.

But there are limitations. The PV system is not a good fit for many multi-story buildings, and new funds will be needed to lease/purchase and install them, according to DOE spokes- woman Donalyn Dela Cruz. DOE’s Facilities office is analyzing how many more could be added at schools, and we urge this be done swiftly.

The DOE is also running pilots around portable classrooms with sustainable design that require more upfront costs in the materials and construction, but can save more in the long run thanks to “grid free” energy production and use.

State Sen. Jill Tokuda also has floated the idea of changing the school year, to start in September rather than late July, so kids wouldn’t be in sweltering classrooms during the hottest time of the year. It definitely won’t solve the issue, but should be explored to see if it could help while schools wait for AC.

Corey Rosenlee, the new president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said pushing back the start of the school year would make little difference because it’s hot throughout the year. He also thinks the $1.7 billion figure for AC upgrades that DOE has been citing is overblown, given the option of PV solar technology — and he’s right to question the DOE’s inability to think outside the box.

The problem requires innovative and quick action, but instead, the lack of urgency in dealing with overheated classrooms is woefully disappointing.

Waianae Kahananui, 26, a Campbell High alum, remembers presenting a student-led petition at the state Legislature calling for AC at the campus during the 2006-2007 school year. He recalls the mercury hitting 96 degrees at 9 a.m. in one classroom.

“I remember 10 years ago it was hard to focus in that heat,” Kahananui said. “I wish there was something the state could do about it because education is suffering.”