Chicago teachers adjust to keep classrooms cool as extreme heat bakes city

Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates stands behind microphones and next to parents and teachers holding signs outside George Washington High School.
CTU President Stacy Davis Gates is joined by parents and teachers outside George Washington High School ahead of school days expected to see soaring heat. (Facebook)

CPS students headed back to school this week amidst a dangerous heat wave, while teachers hope the district’s aging cooling systems can hold up.

This week, teacher Liz Winfield is opting not to turn on computers in her lab class at Benito Juárez Community Academy, 1450 W. Cermak Road, as students “roll with the punches,” she said.

At George Washington High School, 3535 E. 114th St., parent Marcelina Pedraza said the school’s annex doesn’t have working air conditioning. Spots inside the school have been muggy as CPS rolls in a batch of portable units, Pedraza said.

“Which isn’t good enough for a classroom of 30 kids and a teacher,” said Pedraza, who is an electrician and also the chair of the local school council. “We shouldn’t have to keep fighting for quick fixes and band aids.”

Pedraza joined teachers and Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates Wednesday morning outside Washington High School, where parents, teachers and union members demanded a new, green school where cooling issues won’t be a constant touch-and-go.

The school district cancelled outdoor sports Wednesday and Thursday as “oppressive and dangerous” heat advisories blanket Chicago. The city reached a heat index of 114 degrees before noon Wednesday, the highest recorded in the city since 1999.

As temperatures hit 90 degrees in May, educators and parents told the teachers union there were “severe air conditioning/overheating issues” in at least 25 Chicago public schools, disrupting learning and leaving the district scrambling.

A CTU spokesperson said it’s too early to report how many schools have faced similar issues this week.

Teachers and parents at George Washington High School long have complained that the district hasn’t done enough to maintain the school building and facilities. (Maia McDonald / Block Club Chicago)

A CPS spokesperson said in a statement that all classrooms have air conditioning. In cases when its “not operational,” the school district is providing “temporary cooling where possible.”

“This situation is dynamic and the CPS Facilities team is working diligently to respond to schools in real time and resolve issues quickly to ensure there is no interruption to teaching or learning,” the spokesperson said. “The District is prepared to address concerns that may arise as students and teachers head back to the classroom…”

Conditions in some of Juarez’s converted classrooms are still “yucky,” but the temperatures have been more manageable so far, Winfield said.

Simeon Career Academy social studies teacher Rivanna Jihan said the air conditioning has been kicking in well after “major issues” in the spring left students “upset and irritable,” with one student saying his classmates were “melting.”

Both George Washington and Simeon recently had their air conditioning systems renovated, the teachers said.

“So far, so good,” Jihan said. “I guess we’ll know for sure by the end of the week.”

Simeon Career Academy High School in the Chatham neighborhood made major renovations to its air conditioning, a teacher said. (Colin Boyle / Block Club Chicago)

Gates credited CPS leadership and the Johnson administration for being proactive about the issue, working with the union and staying in “constant contact.”

Johnson was a CTU organizer when the union pushed then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to invest $135 million to install air conditioning in all classrooms by spring 2017, Gates said. Union leaders previously said those systems had not been adequately maintained.

“He gets it. Bottom line,” Gates said Johnson, who just wrapped his first 100 days as mayor. “We have the opportunity to be collaborators and partners like we’ve always wanted to be. Now is the time to get it right.”

The union now is focused on working with CPS on a 10-year “facilities master plan,” with hopes to see sweltering schools like Washington High School get a new “sustainable, green school” and athletic facilities, Gates said.

Teachers and parents previously have raised the alarm about the maintenance of the school building after the ceiling partially collapsed and injured a security guard during a June 2022 storm.

Kevin Moore, a social studies teacher at George Washington, said the air conditioners inside the school show an “age factor,” leaks and patches in the HVAC system require “constant work” and some classrooms have been vacated because the units aren’t running properly.

It’s “difficult to teach like that,” and students are having a hard time focusing, Moore said.

“Our hallways have been more hot and humid than usual, because of the heat advisories,” Moore said. “We need facilities that can withstand these changes, because this won’t be the last time it gets extremely hot.”

This article was originally published by Block Club Chicago.

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