School & District Management From Our Research Center

Half of Schools Have Urgent Cooling and Heating Concerns, Survey Shows

By Mark Lieberman — July 13, 2021 4 min read
Students at Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown strive to succeed in a challenging learning environment. The aging building presents small learning spaces, no air conditioning and lack of technology resources. Fans and opening windows are the only means of cooling classrooms down.
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As temperatures soar to record highs in many parts of the country, and fears of imminent impacts from climate change continue to mount, close to half of K-12 educators say heating and cooling challenges are urgent concerns in their school buildings, according to a new EdWeek Research Center survey.

Fewer than 20 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders describe the condition of their district’s school buildings as “excellent.” Thousands of school districts are suffering from a wide range of infrastructure shortcomings—leaky roofs, deteriorating pipes, poor ventilation, overcrowding.

And the majority of educators strongly support federal investment in addressing those concerns.

These finding come from a nationally representative online survey by the EdWeek Research Center conducted between June 30 and July 12, with 760 respondents including district leaders, principals, and teachers.

They offer fresh insight into the layers of challenges school districts have long faced with their buildings due to negligible investment from the federal government, inconsistent state aid, and structural disparities in local wealth.

They also highlight the urgency in the K-12 education world surrounding the ongoing debate in Congress over federal spending on “infrastructure,” broadly defined. Everything from roads and bridges to child care and broadband are on the table for investment, and advocates for school buildings hope they won’t be left behind.

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Image of an excavator in front of a school building.
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President Joe Biden in March proposed $50 billion in grants and $50 billion in bonds for school districts to repair existing buildings and add new ones. Since then, though, many K-12 observers have been dismayed to see the school building line item absent from various attempts at smaller investment packages that could gain support from both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Federal investment in school infrastructure has strong support from 58 percent of district leaders, teachers, and principals, according to the survey. Another 32 percent said they somewhat support the proposal.

Democrats, with slim majorities in both houses of Congress, have promised to pass a bigger investment bill alongside the smaller bipartisan package. That bill, which is not guaranteed to pass, could be school districts’ last hope in the short term for federal infrastructure funding—and it’s not yet clear whether they’ll make the cut.

In the meantime, 5 percent of teachers, district leaders, and principals say school buildings in their district are in “poor condition,” and another 28 percent labeled their buildings “fair.” The remaining 51 percent said their buildings are in “good” condition.

Thirty-one percent of principals and district leaders said leaking or old roofs are an urgent concern. Twenty-nine percent said the same about the poor condition of floors, and 28 percent highlighted poor ventilation. Other issues that more than 10 percent of respondents said were urgent include deteriorating athletic fields and playgrounds, the lack of full accessibility for people with disabilities, insufficient security systems, cracked or drafty windows, overcrowding, crumbling foundation, and broken landscaping.

At first glance, some of these numbers might seem encouraging. They indicate that the majority of schools do not have urgent concerns around these issues.

But the nation’s public school system is enormous—with 13,000 districts and 100,000 school buildings, even a small fraction being in disrepair means millions of students are learning in crumbling facilities.

That can be true even within a district. “Schools range from brand new to 60+ years old,” one survey respondent said of their district. “Older buildings are maintained, but needed repairs exceed budgets.”

Nine percent of principals and district leaders said asbestos is an urgent concern; 8 percent cited insufficient, dangerous, or old electrical wiring; and 7 percent cited mold.

Many respondents said their buildings are well-maintained, praising their facilities staff for proactive work and their communities for voting in favor of necessary funding to complete maintenance projects. Some respondents, though, had significant complaints: their school buildings are approaching 100 years old; the roof has collapsed; temperatures vary widely from one classroom to the next; wiring and plumbing are out of date.

“The trailer I am currently teaching in is 50 years old and the walls and floors have been replaced numerous times due to rot and mold,” one respondent said.

Far more respondents cited urgent concerns around heating and cooling than for any other issue. Two-thirds of district leaders said more than three-quarters of their school buildings have air conditioning in classrooms. But six percent said none of their school buildings have AC, and 13 percent said only a quarter or fewer of their buildings do.

Disparities in air conditioning vary widely from region to region, according to the survey. Eighty-eight percent of respondents in the south said all their district’s buildings have air conditioning, while only 20 percent in the north said the same.

These findings are concerning because of the effects of climate change on average temperatures, and because studies have shown that heat exposure affects students’ performance on tests.

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