State lawmakers are calling on the Department of Education to take more action to cool Hawaii’s sweltering schools.
The issue was heightened when an elementary school teacher drove herself to the hospital with symptoms of heat exhaustion this week.
The Hawaii Legislature set aside $258 million for school capital improvement projects in the two-year budget that began in July, but the department of Education hasn’t dedicated enough of that money to air conditioning, said Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairman of the House Finance Committee. She said of that $258 million, only $2 to $3 million is going to air conditioners.
"It’s really about the department taking the initiative to prioritize," Luke said.
But that $2 to $3 million is being used to buy portable air conditioners to alleviate conditions in the hottest schools on Oahu and Maui, and the department is spending far more on electrical upgrades and repairs to existing air conditioners, said Amy Kunz, senior assistant superintendent.
"We do have a sense of urgency, and we are moving, and it’s just a sustained level of weather that we’re dealing with right now, but we’re hitting it from every angle," Kunz said.
In August, temperatures in Honolulu had reached record highs at least 25 times over the preceding year, according to the National Weather Service. Ocean temperatures have risen, which has led to higher air temperatures, while trade winds have been declining.
Many schools in Hawaii are older and were built to take advantage of those trade winds, and retrofitting the buildings to accommodate air conditioners is costly.
The Department of Education is spending money on other ways to reduce heat, and spending $8 million to repair and maintain existing units, and $10 million for roofing repairs, Kunz said. It would cost an estimated $1.7 billion to install air conditioning in all Hawaii public schools, according to the Department.
But change isn’t coming fast enough for some teachers and students who are sweating it out in 90-plus degree classrooms on a daily basis. Rep. Matt LoPresti, D-Ewa Beach, started a campaign in August that has donated 163 fans so far to Hawaii schools.
"The kids are suffering. The teachers are suffering. They can’t learn," LoPresti said. "We have a situation where teachers are going to the hospital. Where students are getting sick…The response largely has been, ‘well, they just have to drink more water,’ and I find it disappointing, to put it mildly."