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'It's just inescapable': Toronto students, teachers seek relief from hot classrooms

TORONTO — In Beatrice Schneider’s seventh grade classroom in Toronto, there are two fans in opposite corners of the room. One of them is broken.
Twelve-year-old Beatrice Schneider is photographed outside Humbercrest Public School in Toronto on Thursday, June 20, 2024. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO — In Beatrice Schneider’s seventh grade classroom in Toronto, there are two fans in opposite corners of the room. One of them is broken.

When temperatures soar – as they have this week while much of Ontario experiences a heat wave – the class gets stuffy, the students get sweaty and learning can be difficult.

"It’s so hot," said Beatrice, who is 12. "There’s barely any breeze through the windows. It’s not enough."

Beatrice is a student at Humbercrest Public School, which is among hundreds of schools in the Toronto District School Board without air-conditioned classrooms.

As climate change worsens extreme weather conditions, the lack of air conditioning in many classes has become a heated issue amongst concerned students, parents and teachers, who say school boards and governments need to address the problem.

For Beatrice, the last few days – when Environment Canada has warned of temperatures hitting up to 35 C – have been "a drag."

"We go outside mostly for gym, play a game, kick a ball around. And then we come back inside and there's nowhere to cool off. It’s just inescapable," she said.

"It makes it hard to learn, to focus, it makes you tired ... I come home, I’m sweaty."

The Toronto District School Board says 177 out of 582 schools have central air conditioning. The remaining have cooling centres, which are designated areas with air conditioning, such as gymnasiums or libraries.

When asked about high temperatures in its schools, a TDSB spokesperson pointed to the board’s previous public statements on hot weather.

"The installation of full building air conditioning at all remaining schools is not financially possible," the school board has said, noting its $4.2 billion repair backlog.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board cited similar financial limits and said it “has made it a priority” that schools have at least one cooling area.

"The annual renewal funding provided to boards is not sufficient to allow the retrofitting of schools that do not have air conditioning,” it wrote in a statement, noting there are plans to analyze excessive heat in TCDSB classrooms.

The TCDSB is also currently piloting outdoor misting stations at 12 of its schools to provide relief for their students.

Daniela Mendez, a civics teacher at a TDSB high school without air-conditioned classrooms, said hot learning environments make it especially hard for her students to prepare for final exams.

"Adding that to the stress and how late they might be staying up to finish final projects ... I've seen students kind of nodding off a little bit during exams when it's this hot," Mendez said. "And you just know they’re not doing their best work."

Mendez added that when she and her colleagues raise concerns about high temperatures with administration, they're told to ensure students stay hydrated and are referred to one of the cooling centres.

Michelle Teixeira, president of the Toronto bargaining unit for the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the cooling centres often aren’t sufficient for dealing with classroom heat and can only do so much.

“I don't think it's adequate in most cases, because we're looking at high schools that often have upwards of a thousand students in them ... it's not feasible for any kind of sustained break to take place for a class or for students in the library,” she said.

Teixeira said the union has often raised the issue of hot classrooms to the school board but hasn’t been given many solutions. She said part of the problem is that the Occupational Health and Safety Act has no maximum temperature limit, so school boards aren't required to mandate maximum allowable temperatures in classes.

Beatrice’s father, Greg Schneider, has volunteered at Humbercrest Public School for years and said he and other parents have also frequently spoken up about high classroom temperatures. If businesses or governments had to work in the same sweltering conditions, it would be “unimaginable,” he said.

"As long as there's a single school without sufficient air conditioning in the GTA, I think that at Queen’s Park they should work without air conditioning," he said. "Then maybe people will get motivated to do something."

A spokesperson for Education Minister Todd Smith said the provincial government has invested millions to improve ventilation in schools, but the responsibility of managing school heat protocols falls to the school boards.

"While the ministry provides funding, it is the responsibility of the school board to have protocols in place as to how they deal with heat in schools, as well as addressing school renewal needs and requirements,” Isha Chaudhuri wrote in a statement.

NDP education critic Chandra Pasma called the provincial government’s deferral to school boards “shameful” and urged the education minister to take action.

"We know that this government could address this problem today through dedicated funds to improve school infrastructure and investing in air quality and regulation,” Pasma wrote in a statement.

For Beatrice, it all comes down to what's being done to address the issue right now, which she says is not much.

“They're not doing anything to fix the temperature of the classrooms or to bring in proper air conditioning to the room,” she said. “This is a really big problem.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2024.

Rianna Lim, The Canadian Press

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