Nikolai Vitti
Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai Vitti talks with BridgeDetroit about progress with facilities upgrades and the impact of federal aid during the Mackinac Policy Conference on June 1, 2022. (BridgeDetroit photo by Christine Ferretti)

Detroit Public Schools Community District will invest $125 million in equipping more schools with air conditioning to curb closures tied to extreme temperatures that have disrupted learning.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said 35% of the district’s buildings have air conditioning. But in five years, with the help of federal COVID relief aid, that will climb to 95%. 

“It’s going to make a major difference for morale,” Vitti told BridgeDetroit in a Wednesday interview during the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference on Mackinac Island. 

The superintendent noted other efforts afoot to provide relief include negotiations to end the next school year earlier to avoid weather concerns and to have a more consistent flow of learning. 

Vitti’s remarks come a day after DPSCD issued an early release due to near-record temperatures of 90 degrees. The high temperatures on Tuesday followed an equally hot Memorial Day weekend in the upper 80s. 

“It’s not uncommon that we get warm spells like this, but [it’s] definitely not frequent that it’s this warm this early,” said Kyle Klein, a Detroit-area meteorologist for the National Weather Service. 

Tuesday temperatures were 13 degrees above normal, Klein said. The prior record was set in 2018, when it hit 94 degrees one day in May. 

In the next two decades, 90 degree days in Michigan are expected to increase by more than four times, according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Around the world, and in Michigan, climate change is increasing the frequency, severity, and length of heat waves.  Crops will be fried, disease-carrying insects will increase, and the health of people and animals will be threatened.  

Especially in Detroit the health and safety of residents will be at risk, due to multiple factors, experts say. Concrete infrastructure in the city creates a “heat island effect” where heat is trapped, making the city hotter than surrounding suburbs, according to environmental officials including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, many Detroiters don’t have air conditioning which can lead to heat stroke, or exacerbate existing medical conditions like asthma, resulting in fatalities. According to a 2021 research study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, nearly half of Detroiters don’t have fully air conditioned homes. And many Detroiters, living in older homes with bad insulation, struggle to keep the inside of the home cool. 

By mid-century the amount of heat-related deaths in Michigan is estimated to increase to 240 each year, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Emergency room visits will also be seven times more common, if nothing is done to address climate change.

Detroiters with air conditioning may not be spared, due to the frequent power outages the area experiences each year. In 2020, Detroit ranked fourth-worst in the country for the number of days residents spend without power. 

Using historical heatwave data from Detroit, researchers have predicted that a combined heatwave and power outage in Detroit could be more fatal than Hurricane Katrina. 

The heat wave is expected to break tonight, Klein told BridgeDetroit, with below normal temperatures for the next two weeks. 

Then temperatures will be on the rise again, with forecasts showing above normal temperatures for June to August. 

During a heatwave in the future, if a heat emergency is declared, residents can visit one of the city’s cooling centers listed on the city’s website

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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