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A/C Meltdown: 25 Chicago Public Schools Went Without Air Conditioning Last Week Amid Heat Wave

Teachers and students said they had to "tough it out" through high heat last week as CPS played catch-up on fixing air conditioning inside classrooms.

Linze Rice/ DNAinfo
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CHICAGO — Temperatures climbed to more than 90 degrees multiple days last week — and some Chicago schools were left without air conditioning.

Educators and parents told the Chicago Teachers Union there were “severe air conditioning/overheating issues” at 25 Chicago public schools last week, said Chris Geovanis, the union’s communications director. Teachers said students had trouble focusing and learning because of the heat.

But spokespeople for the district said the vast majority of schools have working air conditioning and classrooms were kept at appropriate temperatures.

Liz Winfield, a CTU delegate and teacher at Benito Juárez Community Academy, said she taught her classes Tuesday through Thursday with the classroom lights off and students fanning themselves with index cards. 

Juárez’s central air conditioning “either wasn’t on or was on and not cooling anything,” Winfield said. Teachers bought fans from home, she said.

“It was too hot for us to teach anything. It was too hot to focus and concentrate,” Winfield said. “Some teachers were just playing movies because the kids were looking like wilted lettuce.” 

The issue wasn’t resolved until Friday, Winfield said.

In the meantime, Winfield’s students “just had to tough it out in the classrooms,” she said.

Chicago Public Schools was slow to respond and was not prepared for the heat wave, Winfield said.

“It’s been notoriously difficult to get anything in a quick turnaround from CPS,” Winfield said. “Given the issues with purchasing any sort of supplies for our school, from toilet paper to freon for the air conditioner.” 

Credit: Madison Savedra/Block Club Chicago
Benito Juarez Community Academy on March 14, 2022.

AC ‘A Requirement For A Healthy Learning Environment’

All CPS classrooms are supposed to have working air conditioning.

In 2016, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS leaders said they’d invest $135 million to install air conditioning in all classrooms. Air conditioning — whether through central air or window units — is required for classrooms “and is considered a requirement for a healthy learning environment,” a CPS spokesperson said in a statement.

CPS is “aware of air conditioning issues at a small number of schools and is working diligently to address the situation,” the spokesperson said Monday. Repairs have been made at Morgan Park and Clemente high schools, and fixes were ongoing at Simeon and Skinner West, she said.

“All active classrooms throughout the district have had window units or central air since 2016. Underutilized schools may not have air conditioning in every room, but all occupied/used spaces have cooling systems,” the CPS spokesperson said. “Every CPS building is different and therefore may use different systems to meet heating and cooling needs.” 

But many air conditioning and cooling units are not adequately maintained, a CTU spokesperson said in a statement. CPS should “immediately invest in upgrading or repairing facilities in every school,” the spokesperson said.

“Mayor Lightfoot has more than $1 billion in federal COVID relief funds that could be used to repair and upgrade cooling systems in our schools right now,” the CTU spokesperson said in the statement. “Instead, students, families and school communities are suffering in 90-degree classrooms while the district sits on a backlog of $2 billion in facility needs.”

Some parents reported issues but said CPS was working to fix them. Skinner West parent Fadi Matalka said he heard from his children that older parts of the school building were not staying cool.

A CPS spokesperson said the chiller at Skinner West had failed and repairs would take a couple of weeks. 

Skinner West received 49 temporary cooling units over the weekend, according to CPS. The school is updating parents on the repair process, Matalka said.

“They’re definitely on it; it’s not like they’re ignoring it or anything like that,” Matalka said. “They’re doing everything that they can.”

Credit: Stephanie Lulay/ Block Club Chicago
Skinner West Elementary School is at 1260 W. Adams St. in the West Loop.

‘Everyone Is Complaining About The Heat’

But other schools have seen larger problems.

Simeon social studies teacher and CTU member Rivanna Jihan said her school — built in 2003 with central air — has always struggled to cool the entire building at once, creating “unbearably hot conditions on the second and third floors.”

And last week, Simeon Principal Trista L. Harper told staffers the school was having “major issues with our air conditioner unit. It just needs to be replaced,” according to emails obtained by Block Club.

The heat combined with the cooling issues led to more than half of students being absent in Jihan’s class some days last week, she said. Students cut class in the hallways “because it was slightly cooler there than the classrooms,” Jihan said. 

“Students are upset and irritable. They can’t focus,” Jihan said. “It’s a whole week where there’s no working AC. It tells the kids their education doesn’t matter.”

Simeon has kept temperatures at 75 degrees, according to CPS.

The CPS spokesperson said on Monday a temporary chiller unit for the school will be installed this week, and the air conditioning will be fully replaced this spring or summer.

“District and school leaders are working together with our vendor to address this issue as quickly as possible,” the CPS spokesperson said.

Simeon did bring in portable air conditioning units Wednesday, but they stopped working overnight, Jihan said.

Simeon senior KeShawn Peeples said it was “extremely hot” inside the school Monday. 

“Everybody looks like they’re melting,” Peeples said. “I got my little jug of water. We’re just doing reviews or something basic so we can learn easier. Because everyone is complaining about the heat.”

With sweltering heat in some classrooms, Jihan said faculty members have brought students to the cafeteria, where they struggled to keep students engaged.

“We can’t teach at all without functional facilities,” Jihan said. “This should be basic. You can’t have school on the street. It needs to be safe inside, and 90 degrees is not safe.

“[The situation is] another slap in the face by CPS, particularly when they’re lying. … Maybe next time we need the contract to say ‘functional’ AC units in every classroom. That’s how petty we are getting. That’s a new low for CPS.” 

Winfield said Juárez has similar issues cooling the entire building, and she is worried about conditions when school opens up earlier next year in August. 

“Teachers show up every day and we’re hopeful, and time after time it’s big fail,” Winfield said. “You have to look at these kids every day and say, ‘Sorry, there’s nothing we can do.’ You feel like a failure because you can’t provide the basic necessities.” 

Schools that reported air conditioning issues to CTU:

  • Mark T. Skinner West Elementary School, 1260 W. Adams St.
  • Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, 1034 N. Wells St.
  • Morgan Park High School, 1744 W. Pryor Ave.
  • Carrie Jacobs Bond Elementary School, 7050 S. May St.
  • Murray Language Academy, 5335 S. Kenwood Ave.
  • Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave.
  • Jonathan Y. Scammon Public School, 4201 W. Henderson St.
  • Farragut Career Academy High School, 2345 S. Christiana Ave.
  • Socorro Sandoval Elementary School, 5534 S. St Louis Ave.
  • Richard T. Crane Medical Prep High School, 2245 W. Jackson Blvd.
  • John F. Kennedy High School, 6325 W. 56th St.
  • Beasley Academic Center, 5255 S. State St.
  • Benito Juárez Community Academy, 1450 W. Cermak Rd.
  • Jordan Community Public School, 7414 N. Wolcott Ave.
  • Whitney Young Magnet High School, 211 S. Laflin St.
  • Little Village Lawndale High School, 3120 S. Kostner Ave.
  • Roberto Clemente Community Academy, 147 N. Western Ave.
  • Simeon Career Academy High School, 8147 S. Vincennes Ave.
  • Manuel Perez Public School, 1241 W. 19th St.
  • James B. McPherson Elementary School, 4728 N. Wolcott Ave.
  • Mather High School, 5835 N. Lincoln Ave.
  • John H. Kinzie Elementary School, 5625 S. Mobile Ave.
  • William Howard Taft High School, 6530 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.
  • Nicholas Senn High School, 5900 N. Glenwood Ave.
  • George Washington High School, 3535 E. 114th St.

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Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. 

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