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Schools use COVID relief money to install air conditioning for the first time

The roof of Huntley Middle School in DeKalb
Peter Medlin
The roof of Huntley Middle School in DeKalb

Recently, James Orr and Tammy Carson gave WNIJ's Peter Medlin a tour around the roof of Huntley Middle School. Orr works maintenance and facilities for the DeKalb School District; Carson is the district's director of facilities operations. Orr pointed to some nearby equipment.

“These are the air conditioners for the commons & the cafeteria,” Orr said.

“We hadn't had air conditioning in that area until this past summer," added Carson.

The school district had just used federal COVID relieffunds to install the new rooftop HVAC units so that the gymnasium, locker rooms & cafeteria could finally have air conditioning. Without it, it could get really humid in the fall and spring. Students had been sweating through warmer weather since the school went up in the mid-60s.

Luckily, all of DeKalb’s classrooms have heat and air conditioning. It might not be the most scintillating topic for some, but Tammy Carson says having air conditioning in classrooms is a huge deal. Studies have repeatedly shown that without A/C, when the temperatures in the classroom go up, learning and academic performance go way down.

Some schools aren’t as lucky. Even in 2022, they don’t have proper HVAC systems. Mark Eckstrom has seen how boiling-hot classrooms hurt learning. He’s the director of buildings & grounds in Sycamore and used to be the principal at Southeast Elementary when they didn’t have A/C.

“Sometimes those rooms were 97-98 degrees because it was whatever temperature outside,” he said. “You opened up the windows the best you can and then we're just blowing hot air back and forth. Once we added air to those buildings and saw the amount of work that we were getting out of kids in August and September when the temperatures rise — it was amazing.”

Sycamore started upgrading air handlers just before the pandemic. The timing worked out well. They got better airflow with the help of additional air purifiers as students returned in the fall of 2020.

They’ve replaced half of them in the district so far. This year, they installed A/C in a whole wing of Sycamore High School for the first time. That includes 14 classrooms. Eckstrom says the rooms that still don’t have it, don’t have students all day -- like the attendance office and home economics lab.

Flinn Middle School in Rockford. The classrooms in yellow have no air conditioning.
Flinn Middle School in Rockford. The classrooms in yellow have no air conditioning.

Rockford Public Schools has 41 buildings. Of those, only 10 are fully air conditioned. It’s why chief operations officer Michael Phillips says the federal money is a game-changer.

Earlier this year, the district launched a $160 million AC/air quality improvement project.

“Three of our big projects this year," said Phillips, "are Lincoln Middle School, East High School and Washington Elementary School -- which are all multi-story buildings. All had steam radiators for heat and no other air conditioning."

The district says they want to use that federal money for A/C & cooling infrastructure in every RPS classroom over the next three years. It’s a tall order. There are 16 RPS schools where there are 20 or more classrooms that don't have air conditioning. Five schools have 50-plus classrooms without A/C.

Public records WNIJ received show that at many of those schools, classrooms -- including some special-ed rooms -- go without air conditioning. But the main office, principal’s office & even the principal's bathrooms are equipped with A/C units. Those rooms, though, are more likely to be used year-round.

Conklin Elementary School in Rockford. Rooms in yellow have no A/C. Blue and purple rooms do.
Conklin Elementary School in Rockford. Rooms in yellow have no A/C. Blue and purple rooms do.

But year-round learning happens. There are school programs & activities all summer. But without air conditioning at most schools, Phillips says, the programs get housed in the same few every year. It even makes maintenance more challenging.

“It's important to be able to take a building offline for a summer while we try to deep clean," he said. "It becomes difficult when you're running several programs throughout the summer."

And since schools get to use federal relief -- from the CARES Act & ESSER funds -- on HVAC projects, Tammy Carson in DeKalb says it means they can use their normal maintenance budget on other issues they might not usually have the time -- or money -- for.

“This past summer," she said, "I was able to do several projects of flooring replacements in different buildings and playground replacements where I may not have been able to [otherwise]."

And while new HVAC might not sound as exciting as a new playground, Carsons says a classroom of kids feeling fresh, cool air while the sun bears down outside makes a massive impact on how well they learn.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.