As I prepared for the school year ahead, I was absolutely thrilled. This is my fourth year teaching, and that means I started right before COVID-19 hit. This is my first year of “normal” teaching.
In August 2021, I did something that so many teachers do: crowdsourced resources that should be a given. I set up a project on Donors Choose soliciting donations to ensure that my classroom, one of just a few at Ellwood Elementary School without air-conditioning, would have a functional A/C system (a window unit, but cool air nonetheless). Though much of my teaching experience had been virtual, the time that I spent in my second-floor classroom in the heat was unbearable — and if it was unbearable for me, the literal adult in the room, imagine how it felt for my second graders.
» READ MORE: Philly schools won’t be fully air-conditioned until 2027. Here’s why.
My family, friends, and the entire community stepped up, chipped in, and we reached our goal. The air-conditioner arrived at the start of September 2021, and my students and I were elated. But you’ll never believe what happened next. Or maybe you will.
As it turns out, the wiring in my classroom does not have the capacity to sustain the window unit — something about an additional outlet being needed. So it sat in the main office for months. Meanwhile, as the year went on, the temperature in my classroom started rising. It was not until June that I learned that the unit had been installed in another classroom.
To be clear, every single classroom in our building should have functional air-conditioning, and no one should have to fund-raise for it. I am happy that the window unit is being used.
“It feels like my students and I are being forgotten.”
The issue was being worked on in my classroom, I was told. Over the summer, every classroom at Ellwood was supposed to finally have fully functioning air-conditioning. I was ready. And I was thrilled to know that I would be there, with my fantastic second graders, in person every day, and not having to worry about whether my teaching and their learning were impacted by an outrageously hot classroom.
When I walked into my classroom last week, ready to get everything set up so that my second graders would enter a welcoming environment and get the year off to a positive start, I was stunned to learn that no air-conditioning unit had been installed. The wiring issue remains unresolved, and the path toward a comfortable learning environment remains elusive.
It feels like my students and I are being forgotten, because the electrical issue in my classroom is too cumbersome, not important enough, not enough of an emergency — I really don’t know.
» READ MORE: Philadelphia has about 100 school buildings without air-conditioning. Here’s the full list.
What I do know is that in a school system that educates primarily Black and brown students experiencing poverty, we have to continue to fight tooth and nail for basic human rights. This is emblematic of how our society continues to perpetuate racist systems that leave the students I teach constantly shortchanged. If the students I taught were primarily white, I can’t imagine a world in which the sight of all of us sweating, lethargic, and listless on the first week of school would not be enough to inspire immediate action. We also know that asthma affects over 20% of children in Philadelphia, and for them, excessive heat can be dangerous.
The School District recently announced that full air-conditioning for the district would take until 2027. But our kids can’t wait.
When I stood in front of my students last week, my shirt drenched, sweat dripping down my brow, looking at my students who were equally soaked, I felt anger and sadness. These are second-grade students who come into school each morning bright-eyed, curious, and ready to learn, and that’s exactly what we do each day. My classroom is a place of community, learning, joy, and collaboration. And right now my classroom is also a place of extreme heat.
We work hard to build a loving, trusting community in my classroom, but when we, as a society, send a message to our students that they are not worth the basic necessity of a comfortable learning environment — one that doesn’t leave them groggily mopping their brows all day — we send a message to them that their lives don’t matter as much as a student in a wealthier, whiter school district.
We must bring air-conditioning to every classroom in every school, make any necessary changes to electrical systems, and do whatever it takes to show our young people that their health, their well-being, their education, and their futures matter.
In the meantime, my kids and I will continue to do what we always do: show up each morning, ready to teach and learn. And for the next week or two, we’ll be hot.
Emmanuel Gonzalez is a second-grade teacher at Ellwood Elementary School in East Oak Lane.