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More frequent hot days are forcing Ohio schools to increasingly rely on air conditioning to keep students comfortable enough to learn.

In northeastern Ohio, average fall temperatures have increased nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit since 1970. Meanwhile, school bells start ringing for many students in mid-August.

“Temperatures and humidity in this region can reach uncomfortable levels during this time of the year,” said Joe Bagatti, director of business and operations for Cuyahoga Falls City School District, which welcomed students back last week. 

Only two of the district’s 10 buildings have central air conditioning throughout. The high school has some air conditioning, but not in some exterior classrooms in the building’s older section. The remaining seven buildings have no central air.

Plans in Cuyahoga Falls call for the construction of a new building for grades 6 through 12 to start later this year. And the district is currently developing a scope of work to retrofit its elementary school buildings with cooling systems. But the timing of the upgrades hinges on voters approving a $3.6 million emergency levy this fall.

The growing need for air conditioning in schools that traditionally haven’t required it is among the examples of how climate change is likely to increase costs to local taxpayers across Ohio and the country. Districts are not only investing millions to install cooling, but must also pay for electricity to run them, sometimes in aging, inefficient buildings.

“Schools are really looking at how the climate is changing and how the patterns are impacting their long- and short-term capital plans,” said Phoebe Beierle, senior program manager for school sustainability at the U.S. Green Building Council.

Several school districts in Northeast Ohio canceled classes on hot August school days last year, including Cuyahoga Falls.

“Classrooms that do not have air conditioning or ceiling fans create an environment that is uncomfortable for both students and staff,” Bagatti said. “Keeping the temperature and humidity levels comfortable helps improve focus and productivity during learning.”

The lack of working air conditioning for all classrooms was among the complaints noted by the Columbus Education Association when teachers there voted to strike on Aug. 21, along with grievances about building maintenance, class sizes, curriculum and salaries. Columbus had a combined 14 school days over 80 degrees last September and October.

There’s no firm number on how many public schools have air conditioning, said J.C. Benton, public relations manager for the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission. New schools generally have air conditioning. But OFCC doesn’t track work that isn’t financed through that agency.

With concerns about climate change rising, some Ohio districts have already been working to install or update air conditioning. Columbus began working on air conditioning projects before the COVID-19 pandemic began. When funding from OFCC wasn’t letting the district move forward as quickly as it wanted, it turned to local and federal funding as well. Four federal ESSER-funded contracts and consulting for HVAC work at 13 Columbus schools come to more than $35.6 million.

Only three of the 113 public school buildings in Columbus will be without any air conditioning after summer construction projects wrap up in September, said Jacqueline Bryant, who heads up communications for Columbus City Schools. Funding is in place for two of Columbus City Schools’ three non-air-conditioned buildings, and the third is in the district’s facilities plan, she added. 

All of Youngstown City Schools’ classrooms already have air conditioning, said Rob Kearns, director of operations for the district. Upgrades to all the air conditioning and heating systems will continue through the end of next year. 

Air conditioning systems for East Cleveland City Schools use rooftop water chillers. “We upgraded our HVAC systems when we put in air filtering and air handling systems at the beginning of the pandemic,” said Tom Domzalski, who heads the technology department there. “Air handling was a necessity … to make sure we were going to keep students, staff and community members safe as they were entering the building.”

East Cleveland City Schools has also been working on windows and doors, Domzalski said. “So that when the sun hits the room, it doesn’t heat up ridiculously. And you’ve got better seals on doors so your heat and your cold don’t escape.”

Costly work

School air conditioning costs are among the billions in added expenses local governments may face in coming years as a result of climate change. A July 2022 report by Scioto Analysis, the Ohio Environmental Council and Power a Clean Future Ohio estimates that climate change could cost Ohio local governments up to $6 billion annually by 2050. Ohio’s largest cities could expect to spend between $41 million and $200 million on new air conditioning equipment for schools. Rural and suburban schools also would need cooling, the report said. 

But there are no typical costs. “Every situation is unique,” said Belinda Kenley, vice president and director of sales for Energy Optimizers USA. Much depends on a building’s age, its architecture and existing systems. Also, air conditioning work is often done at the same time as other upgrades, so breaking out costs for cooling can get complicated. 

Different types of cooling systems may work better in some buildings than others. For example, Energy Optimizers provided one recent estimate of about $565,000 to add a variable refrigerant flow, or VRF, system to a school that is now only partially air-conditioned. Those systems allow varying degrees of cooling in more specific areas. But rooms need some space above the ceiling, and building codes also require a way to bring in fresh air, said Tanner Ayers, a senior energy engineer at the company.

Schools are also considering heat pumps where feasible. “In a climate like Ohio, they would be completely viable for providing heating needs as well as air conditioning needs,” Beierle said. The units are very efficient, but can be costly to install, she noted. Many schools also use portable air-conditioning units for short-term solutions in existing buildings.

Air conditioning boosts electricity usage, which in turn can raise energy bills. Beyond cost concerns, some districts also are adopting clean energy goals to lower their schools’ environmental impacts. “That means they need to be layering their approach, starting with energy efficiency as much as possible, and then adding renewable energy,” where feasible, Beierle said.

Schools may wind up “taking a hit on the cooling” when it comes to energy usage, Ayers said, “but we’re upgrading the rest of the building to offset that load” as much as possible. For example, fluorescent lighting not only uses more electricity than LED lights, but it also radiates heat. Making the swap can save energy costs for both lighting and air conditioning.

Even if schools already have full or partial air conditioning, energy efficiency work can make sure equipment is working properly. Software upgrades for controllers, making sure actuators open and close dampers properly, and other steps can reduce wasted energy. 

“When air conditioning is necessary, we want to look at how [to] do it in the most efficient and least carbon-intensive way,” Beierle said. 

“School boards and administrators need to look ahead and be proactive about caring for their facilities and upgrading them to better technology,” Kenley said, “to ensure that the learning environment is as efficient as possible, the work environment is effective, and the costs are controlled.”

Kathiann M. Kowalski

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.