HVAC issue in Boston schools crisis for many

On the first day of school in Boston three years ago, Jovani Fox had a strategy for her six-year-old daughter Ava’s outfit. Hearing that temperatures would reach a high of 97 degrees by noon, they went with shorts and a T-shirt layered over an undershirt.

Fox still remembers receiving texts later that day from Ava’s teachers at Lee Academy Pilot School, explaining that in an attempt to beat the heat, Ava had taken her socks and T-shirt off in the un-airconditioned classroom. “It was just that hot, even though we had prepared for a hot day,” Fox said.

The conditions that Ava experienced that day repeated themselves this past June, when temperatures climbed to 90 degrees in un-airconditioned classrooms, prompting schools throughout Massachusetts to close or dismiss their students early.

Fox isn’t the only Boston public school parent who has taken note of the extreme temperatures a child has endured while at school. 

Mike Ritter, 41, began circulating a petition this past month calling on Boston schools officials to add heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC) to their facilities. The petition is part of a broader push to get Boston officials to commit to using some of the $400 million that Boston is set to receive in federal aid through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund for HVAC improvements.

Ritter started the petition on Sept. 21, but parents and teachers had been calling on Boston Public Schools to make overhauls before last June’s heat wave, before the Covid-19 pandemic shed light on the lack of ventilation in classrooms, and before a 2016 report found that 90 out of 125 Boston public school buildings lacked HVAC systems.

“The pandemic threw the state of BPS buildings into the spotlight,” Ritter said, “and they are so lacking. They’re dangerous.”

More than 700 people have signed Ritter’s petition so far. He said he’s hoping to collect at least  4,000 names — the number of students enrolled in BPS. In addition to the petition, Ritter, a freelance photographer, is also taking photos of BPS families in front of their children’s schools to promote his campaign. 

“We’re staring this thing in the eyes, and it’s obvious what needs to happen, and it’s obvious that it needs to happen as quickly as possible,” Ritter said about implementing HVAC improvements.

Before he drafted the petition, he presented on the HVAC topic to the BPS Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief commission board in June.

A spokesperson for BPS did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Ritter’s petition initiative.

Ritter said he has hope that regardless of who wins the mayoral election between Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, the new mayor will make progress on the HVAC issue in the city’s schools. “Why can’t we make these big investments up front and then reap the benefits in student health, productivity, and environmental carbon cutting?” Ritter asked.

Ventilation has only recently been addressed in the public schools, as a response to the pandemic. To provide better air circulation in school buildings, school officials planned to repair or replace 7,000 windows this past year, and add air purifiers in some classrooms. 

But the ventilation changes haven’t turned down the heat in classrooms. Last month, Ritter noticed that his two daughters, who are 7 and 4, came home from Lee Academy with flushed faces and low energy.

“Adults can’t function well in that environment; kids can’t function; there’s no learning happening in that environment,” he said. 

Pamela Rose, who has taught eighth grade at Boston Latin Academy for some seven years, said the classrooms have reached temperatures of 86 degrees on multiple occasions. In her own classroom, Rose said, her students can’t focus on the material she is teaching. “Looking at my students, their heads are down, they’re sweating, they’re lethargic,” she added. “They’re not in a place where learning is taking place.”

Rose, who is 38, said Boston Latin Academy teachers have been putting thermometers in their classrooms, and recording these temperatures at least since she started teaching there.

Before Boston Latin Academy, she taught at Snowden International School and Brighton High School. Conditions were the same there, she said.

“This is something that’s been ongoing for years,” Rose said, “and now with climate change, we’re gonna start to see more of these unpredictable temperatures.”

Tracking classroom temperatures has even trickled onto Twitter, the social networking site. Earlier this year, Excel High School teacher Molly Mus posted a picture that showed a temperature chart logging her classroom’s temperatures—the highest reaching 90 degrees during April.

On March 3, Rebecca Mulligan, another Boston teacher, posted three photos, one of which showed that the temperature inside a classroom was only 45 degrees. 

Despite continual concerns from teachers, electric fans didn’t come to Boston Latin Academy classrooms until the pandemic, as school officials sought to get a handle on an airborne virus. Before that, according to Rose, she and other teachers had taken money out of their own pockets to pay for fans in their classrooms.

Now, as winter approaches and the temperatures start to drop, Rose is not only concerned about her students, but also about her 4- and 5-year-old daughters, who are enrolled at the Sarah Greenwood School.

While they attended school virtually in the winter last year, inside the classroom the windows were left open to provide ventilation. Rose saw from the Zoom screen that her daughter’s kindergarten teacher and the students there were bundled up with jackets, gloves, and hats.

Rose said the school plans to keep the windows open again this winter. But, she added, she’s prepared to pull her daughters out of school if the temperatures get too cold this winter. Because her oldest daughter has asthma, Rose said she’s worried that extreme weather inside the classrooms could lead to an attack.

“The rhetoric we get from Boston Public Schools is that they’re working on it, but they haven’t been,” she said. “Then when you become a parent, it becomes even more pressing because now it’s your own child who’s in that classroom.”
Erik Berg, vice president of the Boston Teachers Union, said members have pushed for decades for the installation of heating and cooling systems.

When the pandemic began, Berg said, the BTU fought even harder for air purifiers and operable windows in their classrooms. BPS made some changes last year, but even with these updates, Berg said, the union wants new school buildings to be built as soon as possible, complete with HVAC systems. 

“We need more new buildings faster,” Berg said. “Our students deserve it so other communities don’t need to send their kids to such antiquated buildings.”

Fox’s daughter Ava graduated from Lee Academy earlier this year, and started fourth grade at the Dr. William Henderson K-12 Inclusion School in September.

While Ava was still at Lee Academy, her mother, along with other parents, raised the HVAC issue with the parent council and governing board. Although Fox said the teachers and staff at Lee were just as concerned about the heat, discussions never amounted to any action inside the school.

“Our children now are having to bear the brunt of this lack of ventilation and heating and cooling,” she said.