HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - [Update:]
Students and teachers say the sweltering heat in schools across the state needs to be addressed immediately and the Department of Education agrees, which is why it made an emergency request to expedite the purchase of 1,000 portable air conditioning units to temporarily install in the hottest classrooms. It seems like a simple, quick-fix solution -- yet officials say it's anything but.
"We as the DOE acknowledge the fact that the classrooms are extremely hot," said Dann Carlson, the Assistant Superindent of the Office of School Facilities and Support Services. "We realized we really need to do something above and beyond. We had already started ordering some of these, but last Friday that we actually went to the extreme of asking for the emergency procurement because we had exhausted the list of available units on island."
DOE officials say the challenge they're up against is twofold. First off, they say demand is far greater than current supply. Secondly, they say they're coping with an aging infrastructure that needs some major electrical upgrades to sustain the use of portable A/C's.
"This is a very shortterm solution. We're attacking it. It's been unprecedently hot, but we recognize that and this is really a bandaid to get us through these next few months," Carlson said.
57 A/C's have already been installed in classrooms across the state, but 10 aren't operational. DOE officials say the average age of Hawaii's schools is 65 years old -- and as a result, many campuses cannot handle the increased power strain without overloading the school's electric systems.
"We've learned a lot in just the last week with this portable A/C units and the fact that plugging them unbeknownst and didn't expect the circuit to be overloaded but we were popping circuit breakers," said Carlson.
The DOE's top priority campus is Ewa Beach Elementary, but the school -- along with 34 others -- is currently undergoing an electrical upgrade to its system before A/C's can be installed.
"The process is: we go to the principal and he highlights the top ten classrooms that are hot in his school. We then send our electricians to actually test the circuits to make sure they're capable of the load so that once those units do get on-island we can actually get them into the classroom immediately," Carlson described.
DOE officials say they received 36 more portable air conditioning units Thursday and they will be distributing them to classrooms immediately. They say cooling their 15,000 classrooms is the DOE's number one focus right now -- and outside of installing portable AC units, there are several other permanent action plans underway.
"Scientifically it is hotter this year than it has ever been and I think that rose the concern. We are listening to our principals, we are listening to our complex area superintendents, to our students, to our parents -- and we're trying to be reactive. We're trying to do the right thing."
The State Department of Education is working to expedite the purchase of hundreds of portable air conditioning units to temporarily install in the hottest schools across the state.
According to spokesman Brent Suyama, the DOE requested an exemption to the current procurement rules in order to be able to quickly buy up to 1,000 portable AC units, if needed, for those schools that have handled the increased electricity strain from the appliances without overloading the school's electric systems.
The cost could be up to $500,000. But Suyama stressed that with not all schools are able to handle the energy load right now, they'll likely only be able to purchase and install another 200 units or so, not the full 1,000 units. However, officials requested the higher figure in the event the need grows and they don't want to add delays by going back through the funding process.
Suyama said that the DOE has 145 portable AC units already funded and being placed in three priority schools in the Ewa Beach area: Campbell High School, Ilima Intermediate School, and Kaimiloa Elementary.
The DOE's top priority school is Ewa Beach Elementary School, but the school is currently undergoing an electrical upgrade to its system before the air conditioners can be installed.
There are a total of 35 schools undergoing electrical upgrades right now, said Suyama.
In addition, because of the extreme heat this summer, the DOE is also allowing donations of new portable ACs to schools with the understanding that these are only temporary solutions to the heat. But the school receiving the unit(s) has to also be able to handle the increased load without forcing a circuit trip on campus.
Suyama explained that schools are being accessed for heat abatement actions for both long and short term solutions based on what each school can handle. Then based on priority of the school, solutions are enacted and ultimately spread out across all schools in need so that each one receives some type of mitigation action.
But it's not a one size fits all action plan, he explained. Besides new portable AC units, the DOE's website shows that some schools could also be receiving fans, new heat reflective roof systems to keep the sun at bay, and/or solar powered ventilators that flush out the heat from a room.
Campbell High School students are also getting 15 new portable classrooms with ACs, and students also crowd funded to purchase a photovoltaic (PV) powered air conditioning unit to install in a second portable classroom. The system, similar to a pilot program the DOE used on a Waianae School portable classroom, also generates its own power.
The solution of installing these portable ACs over 10,000 BTUs has its own challenges though with their supply coming up short in the marketplace.
"We have 57 so far. They are slowly trickling in, with another 36 expected to come in this week," said Suyama.
Hot temperatures across the state have led to a consumer run on AC units at many retailers who can't keep them in stock. The DOE is competing in that same marketplace.
Many Hawaii schools are as old as 50 years, say officials, and like the mainland, Hawaii is facing the tough financial reality of having to renovate these aging schools that already taxed with increasing energy needs as schools grow their use of technology via computers and equipment in the ever growing high-tech age.
Fortunately, new schools, like Ewa Makai Middle and most recently Hookele Elementary in Kapolei, are being built to accommodate those growing energy needs and are also complete with not only air conditioning but the latest green energy-efficient designs and appliances to help the state and thereby taxpayers save money.
The DOE spends about $48 million a year on electricity usage across the state's 256 public schools, amounting to about $4 million each month.