20 Columbus City Schools to start school year remotely due to heat

Megan Henry Alissa Widman Neese
The Columbus Dispatch
Twenty Columbus City Schools buildings will start the new school year remotely Thursday and Friday due to the expected continuation of unseasonably hot weather.

Twenty Columbus City Schools buildings will start the new school year remotely Thursday and Friday due to the anticipated extreme temperatures and high humidity this week. 

The impacted buildings do not have air conditioning in classrooms or are working on getting HVAC systems installed or fixed, according to the district.

More:How many COVID-19 cases have been reported in your Columbus-area school district?

The rest of the district — the state's largest, with about 47,000 students spanning more than 100 buildings — will start the new school year in person on Thursday. The new school year marks the first time in which most Columbus City Schools students will attend in-person classes five days a week since the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

Columbus City Schools will continue to monitor the weather and expects the 20 affected school buildings will transition to in-person learning starting Monday. 

Nearly 7,300 students enrolled in the affected schools in the 2020-21 school year, or about 16% of the district's total student population, according to data on the district's website.

News:Heat wave persists in Ohio, weather service issues advisory

Through Sunday, high temperatures in Columbus are expected to be in the low 90s, according to the National Weather Service. On Monday and Tuesday, they'll dip into the mid-80s.

Families that need a Chromebook laptop should reach out to their building principal or school office to make arrangements to pick up a device, according to the district.

Which Columbus schools will start late due to heat?

These are the 20 affected buildings:

High Schools (3)

  • Columbus Alternative High School (CAHS)
  • Eastmoor Academy 
  • Whetstone High School 

Middle Schools (6)

  • Arts Impact Middle School
  • Columbus City Preparatory School for Boys
  • Johnson Park Middle School
  • Mifflin Middle School
  • Westmoor Middle School
  • Yorktown Middle School

Elementary Schools (11)

  • Broadleigh Elementary School
  • Columbus Gifted Academy
  • Como Elementary School
  • Fairwood Elementary School
  • Hubbard Elementary School
  • Maize Elementary School
  • North Linden Elementary School
  • Siebert Elementary School
  • Valleyview Elementary School
  • West Broad Elementary School
  • Westgate Elementary School

When will all Columbus schools have air conditioning?

Columbus Gifted Academy, Eastmoor Academy, Whetstone High School and the Columbus Preparatory School for Boys are in the middle of HVAC upgrades to add air conditioning, while most of the other affected buildings do not have building-wide air conditioning and won't until next year.

Arts Impact Middle School and Siebert Elementary School do have it, but their systems went down earlier this week and the district is waiting on repairs, spokeswoman Jacqueline Bryant said.

Columbus City Schools has gradually been upgrading the HVAC systems in its buildings through Operation: Fix It, a $125 million, districtwide building improvement initiative funded by a portion of a tax increase voters approved in 2016. 

Schools with years of life remaining were prioritized, while buildings that might be replaced soon — a majority of those impacted this week — were not, said Alex Trevino, the district's director of capital improvements.

The original plan was to secure additional funds to eventually replace those buildings as part of a facilities master plan. But now the district will use some of its recently allocated federal COVID-19 relief dollars to get all its buildings full air-conditioning by the 2022-23 school year, with work occurring in summer 2022.

The district is expected to receive $450 million over three rounds of funding, with three different spending deadlines. The final one is September 2024.

Bryant explained the construction timeline to The Dispatch earlier this summer.

She said the next round of upgrades is being planned "as quickly as possible," but designing and obtaining bids for a project, as well as equipment, takes time.

"Our summer 2021 projects were initiated at the beginning of calendar year 2020, so this is a pretty typical project cycle," Bryant said in an email. "Even if we were able to expedite the design and bidding/procurement of the work, the installation/construction phase is pretty intrusive and can only be completed over the summer break when we are not in session."

The district is still in the early stages of creating a new facilities master plan with community input, Trevino said.

Several schools in Northeast Ohio, including some schools in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, were also closed this week due to excessive heat and humidity.

n this 2019 file photo, an air-conditioning unit, pictured above, was added to the cafeteria at Sherwood Middle School in Columbus as part of Operation: Fix It, a five-year, $125 million project to address deferred maintenance across Columbus City Schools facilities. The 2019-20 school year was the first time the building had air conditioning.

Essentially all of Franklin County's suburban school districts have fully air-conditioned buildings, meaning extreme heat isn't an issue for them.

Four South-Western City Schools middle school buildings have partial air conditioning in some areas but are in the process of being replaced.

The new, fully air-conditioned facilities will open at the start of the 2022-23 school year, district spokeswoman Sandy Nekoloff told The Dispatch earlier this week.

A June 2020 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that 54% of public-school districts surveyed needed to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools. The greatest issue among them was HVAC systems, with 41% reporting replacements or updates were necessary in at least half of their schools.

Why can't you air condition old schools easily?

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that advocates for better school facilities, said fixing outdated HVAC systems is more complicated and time-consuming than simply popping in portable units.

Aging facilities likely don't have the electricity output to handle that, she said.

Once a construction project begins, other costly issues, such as lead or asbestos abatement, could also follow.

Filardo said her group's research has found that "kids in the highest poverty districts are in the schools where the least amount of capital investments have been made." That leads to equity concerns, because a poor learning environment can impact student performance.

That can also cause a vicious cycle of disinvestment, Filardo said, where families with the means to do so leave for wealthier areas with modern facilities — often, in Columbus' case, to the sprawling suburbs.

To a large extent, most urban districts in the U.S. haven't done a "full modernization" of their facilities, Filardo said.

"Part of it is, there hasn't been a commitment on the part of cities to modernize education infrastructure. It just isn't on the list," she said. "So the districts will look at it school-by-school, but it really needs to be a broader commitment to making sure that the city, as part of its infrastructure, has modern public schools."

Megan Henry and Alissa Widman Neese are the Columbus Dispatch's K-12 education reporters.

Reach them at mhenry@dispatch.com or (614) 559-1758, and awidmanneese@dispatch.com or (614) 461-8866. Follow them on Twitter @megankhenry and @AlissaWidman.