One Portland middle school’s teachers recorded 100-degree temperatures and a 124-degree heat index in September.
Another middle school reached 90 degrees and 106 heat index. One Portland high school had a 95-degree interior and a 99-degree heat index.
Portland Association of Teachers vice president Jacque Dixon reported at a PPS board meeting on Sept. 6 that kids and staff had heat-related ailments this week, including a student who threw up until they passed out.
Dixon claimed most schools were 90 degrees. Portland isn’t alone. It’s not new.
As temperatures rise due to climate change, schools must keep staff and kids comfortable and safe. Since Aug. 24, OPB has received many complaints about unsafe school conditions. Much involved heat discomfort at schools or a shortage of cold water. Portland, Beaverton, Corbett, Eugene, Roseburg, Springfield, and Greater Albany received OSHA complaints.
Complainants say teachers cool classrooms with home window units. Students and staff reported feeling faint and lacked working windows to increase airflow. Other complaints include construction and student conduct.
The state-mandated heat illness training for employees in May. According to OSHA, facilities with mechanical ventilation that keeps the inside heat index below 80 degrees Fahrenheit may not need training.
Beaverton, Three Rivers, and Roseburg need heat illness prevention training. Portland Association of Teachers President Angela Bonilla said at least one complaint came from the teachers union. Not just one school has heat difficulties.
Bonilla: “It’s everywhere.” Brick buildings are likely hot. The union and district are seeking long-term solutions, said Bonilla. “We know this will happen in May and June…we want a strategy,” Bonilla added.
Fans and water aren’t enough to provide a short reprieve from the heat.
Bonilla noticed seven water coolers feeding the 1,700 pupils at Ida B. Wells High School in Southwest Portland. Teachers have told Bonilla that extreme heat affects medically fragile and hijab-wearing Muslim kids.
The district has an extreme heat plan, but Bonilla said heat disease prevention training isn’t a priority. Friday night, Portland Public Schools administrators didn’t comment. Other districts have taken steps to address OSHA objections and the difficulty of cooling school buildings.
In Beaverton, a complaint was filed about Tumwater Middle School, saying temperatures were “86-90” in August and an employee fainted.
The district doesn’t believe an employee fainted after researching the complaint and talking to school administrators. The district claimed it would hire an “outside HVAC provider” to help with heat issues.
Most classrooms in the Roseburg school system lack air conditioning, prompting several complaints.
“Approximately 85% of our classrooms do not have central air for temperature control,” stated Roseburg Superintendent Jared Cordon in an email to OPB.
To combat the heat, the district has given fans and urged personnel to open windows and lower blinds. The district also provides water stations and air conditioning in classrooms for pupils with heat-related medical issues.
These a/c units are a temporary and inadequate solution because they are inefficient, ineffective for large rooms full of children, and cannot be installed in every classroom due to obsolete electrical systems, said Cordon.
Opening windows isn’t always enough. Newer schools don’t have operable windows. In some schools, open windows bring in smoke during the wildfire season. One Grants Pass school district complained about this. Dave Valenzuela visited classrooms.
When it’s hot and smokey in a classroom, everyone gets distracted, Valenzuela said. “August and September classrooms were horrible for me”
Valenzuela said the district has purchased filters, air improvement devices, and tiny A/C units. Employees bring fans. The district is far from a safe learning environment on hot days, Valenzuela added.
Valenzuela said it affects student success. “If we can create a comfortable learning environment, we’re doing our job.”
The district, like many in Oregon, has full of ancient structures. Retrofitting them to combat rising temperatures and wildfire smoke involves large capital renovations, which tiny districts with low budgets can’t afford.
“We’ve tried to enhance our HVAC capacities throughout the years, but it’s impossible,” Valenzuela added. Three Rivers School District’s liabilities are $30 million.
The district used federal monies to improve ventilation to reduce COVID-19 risk in classrooms. UVCUE devices clean hospital air quickly in Three Rivers. Normal HVAC systems in a room deliver four to five air changes every hour, he said.
Valenzuela said UVCUE doesn’t solve smoking problems. Staff brought home window air conditioners, according to one complaint. Valenzuela stated some classrooms had window A/C.
There are a few ways for funding pricey school projects. The Oregon Department of Human Services offers funds to school districts to “address HVAC concerns around severe temperatures,” according to Oregon Department of Education officials. Some Oregon districts are using federal pandemic monies to update HVAC systems.
The Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching programme can support building projects, but districts must provide matching bond funding. Some Oregon districts haven’t been able to pass bond bills.
Roseburg Superintendent Cordon told that school bonds are how Oregon districts afford significant upgrades and new facilities. Without a school bond, the district has few alternatives for fixing heat and other facility issues.
Roseburg will submit a “reduced bond measure” in May.
In Josephine County, a property tax initiative to support upgrades is hard to pass, said Three Rivers Superintendent Dave Valenzuela. His district is proposing a bond next year to improve school conditions.
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