Calls for action as high temperatures lead to sweltering classrooms in Ontario
By The Canadian Press
TORONTO – Students had to withstand sweltering conditions in classrooms across much of Ontario as temperatures soared on Wednesday, prompting calls for the government to address the lack of air conditioning in many schools.
The heat, which led Environment Canada to issue warnings from Windsor to Hamilton, highlighted the province’s long-standing struggle to maintain comfortable and adequate conditions in its aging schools.
The warm weather in particular has increasingly become an issue many parents say needs to be dealt with.
“I’ve picked up my son from school with his face beet-red and his hair plastered to head with sweat,” said Tonia Krauser, whose son is in Grade 1 at a school in Toronto’s downtown. “Last year, I chose to keep him home from school three times due to the excessive heat in his classroom. I know many other parents who have done the same.”
Krauser, who is also co-chair of the school’s parents’ council, said it’s unreasonable to expect children to be able to focus on work while in hot, stuffy classrooms.
“Do you know what helps kids learn?” she said. “Being able to breathe, being able to focus, and being able to think.”
The Toronto District School Board said 128 of its 583 schools are air conditioned. To deal with the heat, the board said it has been setting up “cooling centres” at non-air conditioned schools. They involve an air conditioning unit being placed in a large space.
Funding for those centres, however, comes out of the board’s repair budget, the TDSB said.
“They’re not inexpensive,” said board chair Robin Pilkey. “It can cost $200,000 or $300,000 to put one of those in.”
Over the long term, the board needs stable funding to address the repair backlog at its schools, Pilkey said, noting that money for repairs from the government in recent years has been just enough for emergency needs.
“We react,” she said. “We don’t do anything proactively.”
Ontario has a $15.9 billion repair backlog for schools across the province.
Krista Wylie, co-founder of the advocacy group Fix Our Schools, said the new Progressive Conservative government would need to allocate $3 billion a year for school repairs to truly address the backlog, up from the $1.4 billion it is spending this year.
“That should have always gone to school boards over the last 20 plus years to take care of the routine maintenance,” Wylie said. “We still haven’t seen the overall repair backlog start to decrease.”
Earlier this summer the province cut $100 million in funding raised by the previous government’s cap-and-trade system allocated to school upgrades.
On Wednesday, NDP education critic Marit Stiles called on the Tories to reinstate that funding, saying the cut has meant school boards have had to put some repairs on hold and cancel others altogether.
“That means leaky roofs, that means boilers that need replacing and it means that things like air conditioning in our classrooms bump down the list of priorities every year,” she said.
Education Minister Lisa Thompson said Wednesday that schools will receive $1.4 billion for maintenance and repairs in 2018-2019. The ministry is reviewing how school boards are allocating the funds provided for repair and maintenance, she added.
“School boards are responsible for providing their students with a comfortable and safe learning environment,” she said in a statement. “This responsibility includes ensuring its schools are in compliance with provincial and municipal health and safety requirements, including temperatures in schools.”
Ontario Public School Board’s Association President Cathy Abraham said boards find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation as they prioritize repairs for aging schools.
If a board were to spend money on air conditioning at a school, it could take the place of other, more pressing needs, she said, adding that what boards need is greater flexibility in how they can spend funds allocated by the province.
Meanwhile, the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario said it considers extreme heat a health and safety concern for teachers as well as students.
“This is an issue every year,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond. “It seems like whether it was the previous government or the current government, they’re not dealing with it the way that they should.”
The government should create a formal plan to provide cash to school boards for much-needed repairs and upgrades, but until it does that it should consider cancelling classes at schools in times of high heat, he said.
“They could implement an upper temperature limit,” he said. “Someone asked me if school should be dismissed for that day and I would say absolutely if there’s not air conditioning.”