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September 3, 2012

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Home » Metro » Education

Air conditioning for schools spurs heated debate

SHANGHAI children are starting a new school term, and their presence back in classrooms is certain to heat up the debate about the absence of air conditioning in public schools.

By order of the Shanghai Education Commission, all publicly funded primary and middle schools in Shanghai are banned from installing air conditioners inside classrooms.

Education officials have claimed that artificial climate control can harm a child's immune system and increase vulnerability to illnesses.

Many parents don't agree. They point to meteorological reports claiming that global warming is causing colder winters and hotter summers in the city, leaving their youngsters to either bake or freeze in the classroom.

"Many parents have told me that the ban on air conditioning is inhuman, almost cruel to their children," said Luo Qin, a teacher at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, a member of the city's top political consultative body and an outspoken advocate for lifting the ban.

When the consultative body meets in winter, its members sit in a heated room in a government office building.

"It's painful to imagine, while we are sitting in comfortably air-conditioned conference rooms listening to government reports, that children are left to study in classrooms with indoor temperatures of between 2 and 4 degrees Celsius," he said. "The government needs to change this situation without delay."

Classrooms running hot and cold

Shanghai Daily decided to take a closer look at this issue and found divided opinions, among both parents and among government officials.

The education commission, so far, is defending the ban on air conditioning. In answer to some of our questions, the commission released a statement saying, "Students need to learn stamina in facing the challenges of a changing environment and to learn how to live in a more energy-saving style."

Parents interviewed by Shanghai Daily said they don't believe young children should be forced to bear the brunt of environmental issues.

"Learning stamina by sitting eight hours in a hot or cold classroom?" said an incredulous Qin Yi, mother of 11th-grader Grace Yang at the Wu'ai High School. "It's now very cold in winter and hot in summer. In summer, the children at least deserve electric fans in classrooms. In winter, it's too cold, especially for those sitting by the windows."

She added disdainfully, "School uniforms children are required to wear are too heavy for summer. They suffocate. It's not good for their health."

Liao Xianting, father of a third-grader at the Minhang District Experimental School, said he understands that air conditioning can affect health. But is that enough to force children to learn in inclement conditions?

"They shouldn't refuse to change simply because of minor risks," he said. "I don't think air conditioning would really harm students or their education that much."

Qian Tong, father of 13-year-old Qian Yihui, agreed.

"Developing stamina and a green lifestyle concept are all ridiculous excuses," he said. "Children could learn these things in different ways."

Hua Ruoyu, an 11th-grader from Shanghai Southwest Model Middle School, admitted that it's sometimes hard to concentrate in a classroom that is too hot or too cold.

"We could focus better on studying in an air-conditioned classroom!" Hua said.

There are at least 1,500 public primary and middle schools in Shanghai. Health issues aside, the cost of installing air conditioning in the tens of thousands of public classrooms in Shanghai authority would be "huge," the education commission said. That investment is wasted when classrooms idle during school holidays.

In some cases, schools would need upgrading of their current power system to accommodate air conditioning, adding to the costs, it said.

The education commission would not give any figure for the cost of installing air conditioners in public schools citywide. But Luo Qin, the local political advisor told Shanghai Daily he had visited many schools for an investigation which concluded that it would cost the government an estimated 100 million yuan (US$15.7 million) on completing this project.

Schools' many pressing needs

It's a hard call when there are so many other pressing needs facing the city's education system.

Many parents don't buy the cost argument.

"I believe most schools are financially able to support the cost of installing air conditioning, especially considering the fact that there are so many fees under so many names that parents are now required to pay," said Qin Yi, mother of an 11th-grader.

The threat of additional costs being heaped on parents does rankle.

"It would be unfair for schools to force parents to pay for air conditioning," said Li Jie, whose son is a fifth-grader. "That should be part of the government's education budget."

Still, there are parents who think the cash-strapped education system needs to weigh its priorities.

"I think it would be better to use any additional funding to improve school lunches rather than install air conditioning," said Liu Zhongtian, a lawyer and father of a sixth-grade boy.

He said he is also concerned about the safety hazards from all the wiring that would be required for air conditioners.

Other parents expressed concerns about their children being more susceptible to colds if they sit in air-conditioned classrooms all day.

Most private schools in Shanghai have long had air conditioners in classrooms. Any additional power cost is simply passed on in the tuition paid by parents.

There have been no studies to determine whether students in these climate-controlled private schools are any sicker than those in public schools without air conditioning.

"Cost is the biggest pressure," said one education official who declined to be identified. "Government budgets are getting tighter. Air conditioning would be another burden."

Then, too, governments from top to bottom in China are trying to adopt more energy-saving policies and reduce greenhouse emissions. Shanghai is no exception. Air conditioners aren't exactly considered environmentally friendly.


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