Dearth of air conditioning has Newport-Mesa schools feeling the heat

Beach goers enjoy the cool waters in the late afternoon with their dogs in the lagoon where the Santa Ana river mouth meets the ocean in Newport Beach on Tuesday.
Beach goers enjoy the cool waters in the late afternoon with their dogs in the lagoon where the Santa Ana river mouth meets the ocean in Newport Beach on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)
<i>This story has been updated to include information about air conditioning at Rea Elementary.</i>

Students and teachers across the Newport-Mesa Unified School District have struggled to find relief this week in sweltering classrooms that are not equipped with air conditioning.

This week’s heat wave, which is expected to last through Wednesday, prompted several teachers to issue a plea to district officials in an attempt to level the playing field: Turn off the air conditioning at the district office in Costa Mesa.

“I don’t think they have a depth or breadth of knowledge of what we’re dealing with,” said Newport Harbor High School teacher Melissa Taravella.

Students in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa have faced scorching temperatures, some reaching the mid-90s, in classrooms during the past several days.

The majority of Newport-Mesa’s schools are not completely air conditioned because they were built before air conditioning was widely used. However, many schools have air-conditioned spaces, said facilities director Tim Marsh.

Andersen, Eastbluff, Newport Coast, Lincoln and Victoria elementary schools are the district’s only completely air-conditioned schools. All of Estancia High School’s classrooms are air conditioned, but areas such as the gym and locker rooms are not. All of the classrooms at Rea Elementary are air conditioned, but the multi-purpose room is not.

Installing classroom air conditioning at the 26 other schools would cost an estimated $42.5 million, Marsh said. The district also would incur additional energy and maintenance expenses, he added.

Air conditioning was reintroduced as a topic of discussion in May after a heat wave caused classroom temperatures to rise above what some teachers and parents consider to be safe for students. In response, the district developed a heat advisory committee to study the issue.

“There are ongoing discussions about where to start and how to fund it,” Marsh said this week. “In a best-case scenario, the earliest any physical work could occur would be [next] summer.”

Marsh estimated that adding air conditioning to all the schools would take years.

Principals at each district school sent a recorded message to parents this week to alert them to the hot classroom conditions and encourage them to send their children to school with plenty of water.

Though some districts cancel classes during extremely hot weather, Newport-Mesa does not plan any interruption, said district spokeswoman Laura Boss.

“We believe the best place for our students, even in hot weather, is in the classroom where they are learning, supervised and being part of school activities,” according to a district advisory sent to principals this week.

Parents who believe their children’s health may be at risk have the option of keeping them home or picking them up early, the advisory states.

The district encouraged teachers to buy fans at the beginning of the school year in anticipation of hot weather. Teachers were reimbursed for the expense, Boss said.

However, the fans simply blow hot air around, Taravella said.

She said it’s difficult to keep her students motivated and comfortable for an hour-and-a-half lecture in a sweltering classroom.

“They’re very lethargic when it gets that hot,” Taravella said. “They’re not productive the whole time. There’s no way. I had a kid fall asleep the other day, and I’m a loud speaker. That doesn’t happen.”

Newport Harbor history teacher Michelle Lee found herself helpless Monday when she tried to assist a student who fainted in her classroom from the heat.

The senior walked up to Lee’s desk during her third-period government class and asked to go to the nurse. “She looked terrible and began to sway,” Lee said. “I knew she wasn’t going to be able to walk to the nurse by herself.”

While Lee was on the phone with the nurse’s office, the girl tried to steady herself on the teacher’s desk and told her that she was having trouble seeing.

“All of a sudden she’s swaying more and then fell forward right on top of my desk,” Lee said.

Other students managed to put the girl on the floor as campus security came with a wheelchair to take her to the nurse’s office in the air-conditioned administration building.

After spending time in lower temperatures and rehydrating, the girl was able to go to her next class, Lee said.

It wasn’t an isolated incident, Taravella said.

“You have to ask yourself the question: Who are we here for?” she said. “Are we here to save money for the district or are we supposed to educate kids? If we’re here to educate, then this isn’t the right learning environment.”