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Ontario students at risk in hot classrooms amid scorching temperatures this week, advocates say

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Advocates are raising concerns about high temperatures in school classrooms across Ontario as the province faces a major heat wave this week.

Environment Canada issued a heat warning for parts of the province on Monday, including the Toronto area, which cautioned residents about the heat-related health risks for young children and other vulnerable groups.

Despite the scorching weather, hundreds of students will be learning in classrooms with indoor temperatures of over 25 C, and school boards say besides fans and designated cooling centres there’s not much else they can do.

Toronto District School Board spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz told CTV News Toronto on Monday that they have 177 schools that are new builds and have air conditioning.

She added that air conditioning units were installed in about 243 other schools in order to create cooling centres and that there are some schools that do not have any air conditioning and rely on fans, hydration and windows to stay cool.

“There's no question that our staff, our teachers, our admin staff are super vigilant and aware of how the kids are feeling. They make sure they're hydrated, they keep the classrooms as cool as possible because of course they feel it too,” Schwartz-Maltz said.

“They're going to make sure the kids are okay, make sure they're hydrated and make sure that the lights are off, in some cases, they'll limit outdoor activity.”

Many advocates say the Ontario government needs to take a more vigilant approach in ensuring classrooms are kept cool in order to foster a comfortable learning environment and to keep kids healthy and safe.

Ontario Green Party Deputy Leader Aislinn Clancy issued a news release on Monday saying the lack of access to cool classrooms is dangerous for both staff and students by hindering wellbeing and learning, and creating “extreme risks for those with pre-existing health conditions.”

“The [Doug] Ford government’s failures to protect our kids from the dangers of extreme heat isn’t just irresponsible – it’s downright dangerous,” she said. “This week, temperatures across Ontario are expected to reach the high 30s to low 40s. For our schools without air conditioning, that means classrooms will be just as hot.”

She called on the Ford government to implement an extreme heat preparedness plan that mandates mandatory air conditioning in all schools across the province.

“Once again, Greens reaffirm our call for the Ford government to implement an extreme heat preparedness plan that protects our kids and from the dangers of these rising temperatures by implementing mandatory air conditioning in all schools.”

Mary Jo Nabuurs with the Ontario School Safety, an organization which advocates for safe, in-person education, told CTV News Toronto that the government is not making students a priority.

“They have absolutely invested in the best air quality in the places that they work because I have been at Queen's Park many times and it has great air quality. It is beautifully air conditioned,” she said. “I think parents, students and people who work in the school system are just looking for that same comfort and ability to function properly, be as productive as possible.”

“They just need to make the investment. It's just a no-brainer now. We can’t wait any longer.”

A spokesperson for the Ontario Minister of Education Todd Smith told CTV News Toronto that while the government has invested millions of dollars into schools boards and that it’s up to the boards themselves to decide what to do with the funds.

“It is the responsibility of the school board to have protocols in place as to how they deal with heat in schools, as well as addressing school renewal needs and requirements. We expect schools to listen to the concerns of parents and needs of students,” the spokesperson said.

Schwartz-Maltz says its not financially feasible for the board to air condition all of its schools.

“It is hundreds of millions of dollars to fully air condition all our schools and we have over a $4 billion (repair) backlog,” she said. “So not doable in terms of air conditioning in all our schools. Hopefully over time.” 

A spokesperson for the Toronto Catholic District School Board told CTV News Toronto on Monday that most, but not all, of its schools have air conditioning or cool centres.

“The board is also piloting the use of misting stations at 12 elementary schools within the system to provide the school communities with further relief during outdoor activities. Additionally, staff and students will be encouraged to stay hydrated throughout the day,” the spokesperson said.

“TCDSB also monitors the forecast for heat or weather-related warnings regularly and provides schools with ongoing updates, including considering indoor recess or canceling outdoor activities if needed based on local area weather conditions.”  

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