Illustration: Jeffrey Liu

Do you remember the last time you tried to learn in a hot classroom? In the last few months of the 2017 school year, the students of Marc Garneau endured the oppressive heat of summer. Although air conditioning was installed, it was turned off to prevent the fumes from roof construction from entering the school. If you were around then, you understand the struggle of learning, or at least attempting to learn, at 25°C.  

Thankfully, by the beginning of the following school year, roof repairs were complete, and air conditioning was turned on just in time for the September heat wave (except for classes in the portables). Most schools in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), however, were not so fortunate. Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute is one of just 125 schools in the TDSB—which oversees 584—that are fully air conditioned [1]. It is a blessing. To have to experience Summer 2017 every year, during a time when the pressure to study is just as strong as the heat, would be unbearable. But such are the circumstances for the other 459 TDSB schools.

For those 459 schools, TDSB proposed some tips for “beating the heat.” The suggestions included closing blinds and utilizing fans, moving to cooler areas where possible, limiting intense physical activity such as gym activities, and cancelling all practices for school sports teams temporarily across TDSB schools until temperatures cool down during particularly sweltering periods [2]. Students impacted by heat-related medical concerns are to ask staff for further accommodation. Unfortunately, not only are these tips obvious, but have all been tried by schools to little avail. The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario claims that the lack of effective measures to cool students off “takes an unacceptable toll on teaching and learning” [3].

Confronted with the immediate need to alleviate the discomfort brought by a heat wave, installing full air conditioning should be a priority. TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird points out that the board has a $3.4 billion repair backlog [4]. This backlog, according to the TDSB, excludes repairs that are hazardous or extremely urgent [5].

As expected, one of the obstacles in prioritizing air conditioning is the cost. Funding allocated to school boards for repairs and maintenance is one-tenth of what industry standards recommend to maintain a good state of repair in schools [6]. Even if air conditioning is prioritized relative to other backlogged repairs, insufficient funding means hazardous damages consume most of the budget. Hazardous damages such as leaking roofs and malfunctioning boilers are justifiably a top priority. Currently, there simply is not enough room in the TDSB budget to accommodate the installation of full air conditioning.

Even newly-constructed schools are not guaranteed air conditioning. Of the last five schools built, only three were equipped with air conditioning [6]. If a school is built with air conditioning, which costs upward of $500,000, it is typically because it received a trade-off on some other aspect of the construction such as smaller gyms or less elaborate playgrounds. If we recognize now that air conditioning is essential, then the TDSB should act promptly. Make it mandatory for all new schools to come fully installed with air conditioning so we do not have to expand the to-do list.

For those schools built without air conditioning, the TDSB is in the process of creating cooling stations. This entails cooling large areas such as gyms or libraries to create a safe zone for students during high temperatures. It provides immediate relief to an immediate problem. However, even this is expected to take five to seven years to implement. The inability of the TDSB to implement solutions quickly, owing largely to a lack of funding, has forced communities to craft their own solutions. For instance, a Toronto teacher spent $500 on an air conditioning unit out of her own pockets because she couldn’t handle the heat. So it seems that if Toronto summers are becoming hotter and hotter [7], school communities must cool themselves off.

As a temporary solution, communities could fundraise. The responsibility of a more permanent solution, however, falls on the shoulders of the TDSB and the province. The province, along with their increase in funding for school repairs every year [8], should provide a grant specifically for air conditioning installation. This would ensure that the TDSB will allocate more funding towards their air conditioning projects. Help students beat the heat!