Opinion: If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Stay Out of the Classroom

Mark Weber | September 21, 2016 | Opinion
The sweltering weather has made it all too clear that New Jersey’s politicians have no real interest in giving teachers safe, comfortable working conditions

Mark Weber
When New Jersey’s teachers returned to their classrooms earlier this month, they found an unpleasant surprise waiting for them:

Overheated classrooms.

Actually, for many teachers, it wasn’t a surprise at all. As John Abeigon, president of the Newark Teachers Union, tells me: “Depending on the weather, heat’s been an issue forever in these schools.“

The leaders of local teachers unions in the state’s largest cities have been especially vocal about the oppressive conditions teachers endured during the first week of school. John McEntee, president of the Paterson Education Association, says the issue was made worse in his district because of the lack of drinking water.

“We had several frantic calls from pregnant teachers,” says McEntee. “They called and told me: ‘I’m pregnant, principals are conducting walkthrough evaluations, and I can’t even stand being in my room.’ The kids are completely drenched, and in some schools, bags are over the water fountains.”

The lack of potable water in schools has been a problem in Newark since last year, when, in response to the Flint, MI, water crisis, Newark school water was tested and found to contain lead in several buildings.

“There’s been no proper investment in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) upgrades or on getting the lead out of the water,” says Abeigon. “We’re like a third-world country getting donations of bottled water.”

Teachers union presidents have to work with their superintendents to determine whether their schools are safe for staff and students. In urban schools, the problem is compounded by an aging infrastructure.

“We have people with asthma — not just staff, students as well,” says Naomi Lafleur, president of the Trenton Education Association. “There’s no money for new construction, and when you look at the old infrastructure, it seems like the costs are out control.”

But here’s the thing: inadequate HVAC, water, and other building essentials aren’t confined to urban districts with older buildings. During the sweltering early days of September, many suburban districts were also dealing with overheated schools.

Teachers from Deptford and Bridgewater-Raritan posted pictures on social media of their thermometers, showing temperatures climbing over 90 degrees. Staff in South Brunswick and Parsippany reported stifling heat in their classrooms. Mold was found in Hillsborough High School, undoubtedly made worse by the lack of proper ventilation and air conditioning.

Time and again, I’ve heard this same story from teachers all over the state, working in districts with both affluent and disadvantaged student populations: many of our classroom are uncomfortably — and at times, dangerously — hot.

So what has been the response from our governor? A renewed commitment to making all of our classrooms places where learning can occur in all kinds of weather? An infusion of capital to make all of our schools comfortable and safe?

Incredibly, no; Chris Christie, instead, wants to throw away collective bargaining agreements in the 31 SDA (Schools Development Authority) districts, so he can lengthen the school day and year without any negotiations with teachers unions.

It’s bad enough that Christie has apparently decided that teachers should be forced to work more hours without an increase in pay. But he wants those teachers to work in schools that are already ovens in September and June. What happens when students fill up those hot classrooms in July and August?

Given the current state of our school buildings, local union leaders are flat out rejecting Christie’s proposal. “We work 185 days a year,” says McEntee. “That’s already 5 days beyond the state’s mandate. Paterson already has turnaround schools where the superintendent can lengthen the day and the year.

“But if the governor is somehow suggesting all schools needs to go beyond June 30, my reaction is this: what conversation would he have with a parent whose child had a heat stroke in a 100-degree classroom? We’re talking a humane issue. This is every parent’s worst nightmare.”

McEntee is correct, but, in my view, this goes beyond safety concerns. It speaks to whether we, as a state, are truly committed to bringing the best people we can find into the teaching profession.

What does it say about how we value teachers when we can’t even give them comfortable, let alone safe, buildings in which to work? Do law firms think they can attract the best legal talent if their offices are like saunas? Do hospitals believe they’ll get the best medical professionals if their buildings are routinely in the high 80s all summer?

Overheated classrooms are yet another sign of how politicians really value teachers. Sure, they’re happy to tell us we’re important, but when it comes time to make certain we have decent working conditions — and students have decent learning conditions — too many are back in their air-conditioned offices, making excuses for not raising the revenues needed to upgrade our schools.

The true gauge of how Chris Christie — or any other politician — values teachers will be the thermometer readings from our classrooms this coming June. As the mercury rises, we’re reminded of just how little regard the current administration has for us, let alone our students.