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NYC eyes schools as social distance-friendly cooling centers

A public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was distributing free food during the coronavirus outbreak, May 14, 2020.
A public school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, was distributing free food during the coronavirus outbreak, May 14, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

This story was originally published on May 17, 2020 by THE CITY.

Empty public school classrooms could be turned into social distancing-friendly cooling centers for senior citizens and other New Yorkers during hot summer days, THE CITY has learned.

“We’re about to enter a summer unlike any in history,” Laura Feyer, a City Hall spokesperson, wrote in an email Sunday.

“And we are also looking at a variety of options to adapt cooling centers to this new reality,” she added. “Since schools have many smaller rooms within them (ie, classrooms), they could be a good option for vulnerable populations.”

The city’s eye on air-conditioned classrooms comes as the city Department of Education mulls a decision over how it will operate summer school. Education officials have indicated that some online instruction will be offered in July and August.

“We will have more to say soon,” said Jane Meyer, another City Hall spokesperson.

Even if in-person summer school commences for kids struggling academically, plenty of classrooms would be available to use as cooling centers, according to Feyer.

“Not every school is used as summer school during summers, only select ones,” she said.

A Search for Space

Traditional cooling center sites, including libraries and senior centers, closed when the city went on pause March 16. Many of them do not provide enough space for social distancing or have been converted to food production and delivery facilities.

An estimated 440 school buildings are not free meal locations and could be used for cooling centers, according to Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, who supports the idea.

The city is still determining which schools could be converted to cooling centers, according to Feyer.

Not all classrooms have air conditioning: An estimated 13,132 of a total of 59,666 rooms are without the cooling devices, a January Department of Education report to the City Council shows.

In April 2017, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed every classroom would have an air conditioner by 2022.

THE CITY reported in April 2019 that the operational cost has gone up from $28.7 million to $39.6 million. Meanwhile, capital construction costs have ballooned from $50 million to $334 million, according to the DOE.

De Blasio’s Summer Plans

The city is also looking to convert “larger community spaces in low-income communities to create cooling centers that allow for maximum social distancing,” Feyer told THE CITY.

That may include sports venues and auditoriums, de Blasio told reporters on Friday.

He added that the city will spend $55 million to purchase 74,000 air conditioners for low-income seniors, designating 22,000 for public housing tenants identified by city caseworkers as in need.

The state is putting up $20 million for the initiative and the city hopes federal government grants will cover the rest.

The city’s Parks Department is scouting neighborhoods to launch spray showers for kids as misting “oases” on hot days, while the Department of Environmental Protection plans to schedule hydrant openings.

On Sunday, de Blasio revealed that city beaches won’t open to swimming come Memorial Day weekend, and said the city plans to add fencing to limit entry. But lifeguards are being trained in the hopes of a start later in the season, he added.

Summer also brings heightened chances of power outages, which could pose additional challenges as the city works to stifle the spread of coronavirus.

When necessary, hotels will be used for emergency shelter during prolonged outages, according to city officials. Buses will be provided for cooling during short outages, de Blasio said.

The city is seeking to buy 22 portable power generators to add to its current stock of 60. The mayor is also urging the Public Service Commission to boost aid by $160 per customer to help them cover their summer utility invoices.

“The heat is coming no matter what,” de Blasio said Friday. “And last year we saw some very sobering reality around the heat.”

The city logged the 10th hottest July in history last year and suffered multiple power outages, including one in midtown Manhattan.

“The heat itself, we’ve learned more and more the hard way, can be dangerous,” de Blasio said. “We’re seeing this all over the country, all over the world.”

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