Air conditioning in school is a hot button topic

As warm temperatures arrive, school officials are reaching for the switch to turn on air conditioners. Fans may do the trick for a little while, but eventually, as studies show, the humidity and heat will begin to impact their productivity.

State Rep. Joan Meschino, a Hull Democrat, and Sen. Patrick O’Connor, a Weymouth Republican, are cosponsoring legislation to create a commission to study minimum and maximum allowable air temperatures in public school classrooms and facilities. State regulations say that classroom temperatures must be between 68 and 80 degrees.

Their bill would also require the commission to assess the number of air conditioned public schools in the state (some classrooms have only fans), those facilities’ processes for installing air conditioning or heating upgrades, and indoor air quality.

O’Connor testified that classrooms are not meeting regulations before the Joint Committee on Education earlier this week. Members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association Health and Safety Committee, the Hull Teachers Association, and the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health also spoke.

Schools in Cohasset, Hingham, and Hull have brought attention to heat and air conditioning in the past.

Hingham has sought state money to rebuild or renovate the 67-year-old Foster School, where the school’s heat, power, and air conditioning are all controlled through a 1951 electrical gear-switch apparatus. Other schools balance sending kids home for snow days with the reality of having them stay longer into the summer in non-air-conditioned buildings. Meschino told the Patriot Ledger she believes programs don’t exist to help schools install and maintain air conditioning units.

“I think that’s an example of the changing environment around us,” she said. “Climate change is real and as we start to see more extreme temperatures, both hot and cold, these are the kinds of questions we need to think about and we need to make sure money is available to address these kinds of problems.”

It’s a multi-pronged issue of making sure that, first, schools have air conditioning, second, that those air conditioners are reliably functioning, and third, that they take into account energy efficiency and impact on climate. That’s a hard thing to do for large buildings that rely on public funding.

Take, for example, a building the size of Quincy High School, which is about 330,000 square feet. A state-of-the-art HVAC system was included when the school was built in the late 2000s.

The school retro-commissioned its HVAC units in 2015, a process that improves the energy efficiency of existing equipment. But with over 1,800 public schools across the Commonwealth, making sure they all have this level of quality and consideration for climate change may be difficult and expensive.

The Daily Times Chronicle recently wrote that the Burlington school district’s master plan estimated costs to upgrade its HVAC systems would be approximately $12 million. The district has unsuccessfully submitted a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority seven times, with hopes that this project would be partially funded.

But in the long run, it may be worth the time, effort, and cost.

Back in 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star program wrote that for a typical 100,000-square-foot school, retro-commissioning could yield, on average, about $10,000 to $16,000 in annual energy savings.



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