By Ben Joravsky

It’s two in the afternoon, and the public school students of Chicago are baking in the heat.

Such was the scene in school after school last week: students in a stupor, heads on desks, eyes vacant, barely hearing a word the teacher said. It was well over 100 degrees in some old buildings.

“I’m sending my kids to school with buckets of ice water,” says Linda Griffin, a parent at the Hawthorne School on the north side. “It’s like marching them off to the desert.”

Welcome to education in Chicago, where on the eve of the 21st century few of the city’s 580 schools have air-conditioned classrooms.

A few hot days aren’t unusual when school starts, and public school kids aren’t the only ones suffering–many Catholic and suburban schools also do without air-conditioning. But as Chicago lengthens its school year, the number of hot school days is growing. School now begins in mid-August, two weeks before the traditional Labor Day start. And summer vacation has been eliminated for the thousands of low-scoring students (about 50,000 this year, an estimated 70,000 next) required to take summer school.

City schools have adjusted to the earlier start by closing in mid-June (a week earlier than a few years ago). But that brings little relief from the heat, since August is generally hotter than June. And Mayor Daley and schools CEO Paul Vallas have made it clear they prefer a year-round system, with schools closed for only three or four weeks in the summer. As they see it, summer vacation’s a waste of time (at least for other people’s kids)–students lose their edge and forget too much of what they learned the year before.

“One can argue for or against year-round schooling, but you shouldn’t implement it without air-conditioning–at least not in our climate,” says Dion Miller Perez, a community organizer for the Neighborhood Capital Budget Group, a not-for-profit government-spending watchdog. “The schools weren’t built to function in the heat of summer. If you’re going to implement a policy you have to realize there will be ramifications. And you have to adjust to those ramifications.”

It won’t be an easy adjustment, however, as many of Chicago’s schools are 70 to 100 years old. “Their wiring is so old it can’t handle a copy machine, let alone an air conditioner,” says Perez. “It would be a major undertaking to retrofit them. It would take a lot of planning. But the board has no comprehensive plan for installing air conditioners, even in those schools where summer school takes place.”

Perez calls it a classic example of one-step-forward, one-step-back Chicago bureaucracy. A policy intended to foster education has in some ways made things worse.

“It’s ridiculous to have school in this kind of heat,” says a first-grade teacher on the north side. “It’s unhealthy for the younger kids. I’m afraid they’re going to get heatstroke. We have them sit still and we try not to move. The kids are in a daze and the teachers are grumpy. You’d be grumpy too if you had to work in this kind of heat.”

Over the course of the school year, many teachers figure they’re likely to lose three weeks or more of quality class time to stifling heat. “We have to come out of the Stone Age,” says Valencia Rias, a member of the local school council at Harold Washington, a south-side grade school. “You might say, ‘Oh, it’s only a week at the start of the year.’ But what if we have a heat wave in September and May and June? It adds up. We’re talking days where it’s hard to get anything done.”

At a press conference early in the summer, Vallas promised to install air conditioners at schools that hold summer school. But press aides in the school board’s central office say they don’t know how many–if any–schools have been air-conditioned in the last few months. They referred all questions to Tim Martin, the board’s chief operating officer, who did not respond for comment.

In the meantime, schools adjust to the heat as best they can. “We open the windows and we open the doors,” says Roscoe Beach Jr., principal of Buckingham Special Education, a year-round school on the far south side. “We have plenty of fluids for the kids.”

When Buckingham agreed to go year-round, it expected air-conditioning. “At one time it was promised as an incentive,” says Beach. “Needless to say, we’re still waiting.”

Other countermeasures to the heat create new problems. Fans blow paper around; open windows bring in bees as well as noise from construction and traffic.

Some rebellious teachers have installed AC units in their rooms, but their initiative raises legal questions. “If a teacher installs a unit and that unit falls on top of a passerby, there’s an issue of liability,” explains one north-side assistant principal. “It’s against the rules to install an air conditioner without [central office] approval.”

Even opening the windows can get complicated. A few years ago the board sent out a memo informing teachers that they could raise their windows only a couple of feet. “I guess they were afraid of students falling out,” says Doris Rubin, a retired elementary school teacher. “How much this rule gets enforced depends on your principal. I had a principal who used to go around closing the windows. I’m not making this up. It would be steaming hot and she’d be closing the windows.”

A campaign to install air-conditioning in every school, in the spirit of Vallas’s pledge to repair every leaky roof, would cost much more money than the school system has. And many parents don’t trust the board to get the job done.

“We don’t even have sufficient heat–how can they handle air conditioners?” says Griffin. “In the dead of winter there are teachers who wear shirtsleeves because their rooms are so hot. Then you have teachers on the other end of the building who are wearing winter coats because their rooms are so cold.”

“They’ve been playing around the roof at Hirsch for the longest time,” adds Eric Outten, president of the LSC at Hirsch High School on the south side. “I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t the faintest idea what they’re doing up there. I think they’re ‘fixing’ the repairs that the other roofer made.”

The easier solution would be to push back the start of school to Labor Day. But that idea collides with Daley’s desire to acclimate the public to year-round school. More likely, Vallas and Daley will let the issue fade as temperatures fall and people forget just how hot those first few days of school were.

Most parents and students already take a relativistic approach to the issue. “The heat makes it hard to work, you’re just so hot and tired,” says Molly Ferguson, an eighth-grader at the Ray School in Hyde Park. “But when I think of all the other things our schools need, air-conditioning seems like a luxury. It’s only 20 days or whatever that it’s really hot. It’s not worth spending all that money when we could be using it for things more important to education, like workbooks.”

There are even those who feel the adversity builds character.

“It’s hot in our school, especially on the third floor, but it isn’t a big issue with me,” says Rich Unger, an LSC member at O.A. Thorp on the northwest side. “It’s called ‘live with it.’ I didn’t have air-conditioning in the schools I went to. Listen, it won’t last forever. This is Chicago–the weather varies. If you don’t like it now, wait a day. It will change.”

However, Unger’s quick to acknowledge that his home and office are air-conditioned.

“I tell you what–the central office is air-conditioned,” says Perez. “They don’t work under the same conditions as our teachers and students. I’m not surprised that we don’t have a big outcry. Students and teachers are so acclimated to the environment being like crap that they don’t even notice. They’re used to sweating and being lethargic.

“The funny thing is that it’s not that hard a problem to solve. School systems in the south and southwest are updating old systems. I recently went to a design conference at the University of Virginia. For them air-conditioning was a preeminent concern, if only to take care of their computer technology. They were systematically air-conditioning all of their old buildings. It was a matter-of-fact part of their capital budget. But I guess that would just make too much sense here in Chicago.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Roscoe Beach Jr. courtesy Robert Drea.