The school year started off hot. Experts say it wasn’t just luck
As climate change causes the world to warm at a record pace, experts expect extreme summer heat to be more intense and last long beyond the summer months, which could lead to a more difficult start to the school year.
Combined with a decades-long underinvestment in school infrastructurethe first week of September was a prime example of what schools can expect when older buildings face extreme temperatures.
In cities across the northeastern United States, dozens of schools closed, dismissed early, or switched to virtual classes With temperatures rising to the mid-nineties. Many of the closures were necessary because schools did not have air conditioningAccording to local media reports.
“It is a crisis… that we are not able to provide safe, healthy, comfortable learning environments for students and teachers,” said Joseph J. Allen, associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University. “It’s not a one-off. This year has been the hottest year on record, and it’s going to get hotter.”
The World Meteorological Organization and the Copernicus Climate Change Service announced on Wednesday that Earth experienced the warmest June through August on record.August was the second hottest month on record, behind only July 2023.
The high temperatures extended to northern climates and other regions that are usually spared from extreme heat and generally not as prepared as other regions.
Experts say there is no sign of global warming slowing, so schools need to take steps to respond to what is likely to be the new normal.
There is no national inventory of the number of schools that do not have adequate cooling systems, but it is more common than some might expect. One expert recently told EdWeek 41 percent of schools need to update or replace their HVAC systems.
These schools are more at risk of closing or dismissing early when temperatures rise.
The impact of these closures is not yet quantifiable. But the more time students spend in classrooms, the better, said Jonathan Klein, founder of UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit focused on education, and the loss of valuable instructional time, especially as students still strive to reclaim academic ground Losing it during the pandemic is a problem. Schools’ response to the climate crisis.
“Extreme heat is undermining the ability of schools to educate children and keep them safe, and it is not going away,” he said.
Filtration systems are important year-round
Even if schools remain open in hot conditions, warm, uncomfortable classrooms can hinder students’ ability to focus on their work.
School and district leaders may be more inclined to make expensive, time-consuming long-term investments in air filtration systems if they embrace the fact that clean, comfortable environments are beneficial every day, not just when the heat hits, Allen said. Good air quality has been linked to students missing fewer days of school, being more alert in the classroom, and performing better on standardized reading tests, he said.
They also play a key role in filtering out airborne viruses and diseases, such as coronavirus (COVID-19) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which can make students and teachers sick.
“The way we manage our school buildings determines whether they are a place of refuge or a place that exacerbates the problem,” Allen said. “So we shouldn’t be thinking about these things just a few times a year when there’s a major threat. It impacts children’s health and learning every day.”
All of these issues together should serve as a wake-up call for districts to be more intentional in planning their facilities, Klein said. He said regions should seriously consider developing long-term plans to systematically modernize ventilation systems (replacing fossil fuel-powered systems with solar-powered equipment, for example).
But even if all the money schools need were available immediately, this work couldn’t be completed in just a few months, so investing in some short-term solutions would also be helpful, Klein said.
This could include making sure water bottles are available to students at all times, installing shades over windows, using more fans, and educating staff and students about the signs of heat exhaustion.
“We really need to plan ahead to avoid those temporary measures that are less efficient and less beneficial in the long run than addressing the cooling and filtration issues throughout the building,” Klein said.
Often, it’s schools in poor communities or with large numbers of students of color that lack adequate air conditioning, Klein said. These students already tend to struggle more than others to keep up with their white, affluent peers, so subjecting them to an environment unconducive to learning, or sending them home to avoid the heat, is particularly problematic, he said.
“It is also an equity issue, and one we must address urgently and intentionally,” he said.