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Heat Wave Reopens Debate Over School-Closing Policies

By Ellen Flax — June 12, 1991 4 min read

An unusual heat wave over much of the eastern part of the nation last month forced many schools to shorten their instructional day temporarily and reopened longstanding questions about weather-related school closings.

Faced with the problem of operating schools without air conditioning when temperatures soared above 90 degrees for several days in a row, district officials along the East Coast said they had little choice but to end the school day early.

According to the National Weather Service, temperature readings were well above normal in most of the eastern part of the country in May.

Richard Tinker, a meteorologist in the service’s climate analysis center, said high readings in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic region, North Carolina, the Great Lakes region, and in Pennsylvania and New York made it “one of the three or four hottest Mays on record” in those areas.

The high temperatures were particularly intense, he said, during the last week of the month. But other parts of the country, including the West Coast, had a cooler-than-average May, he noted.

In response to the hot weather, dozens of districts, particularly in the Mid-Atlantic region, ended their instructional day earlier than normal to allow their students and teachers to beat the heat. Among the districts that closed early at least some of the days were the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, and Trenton.

No Heat-Related Standards

District officials said last week that they decided to close schools early when indoor temperatures hit levels that made it difficult for students to learn. They said, however, that there is no standard measurement or temperature level that would trigger this decision, since schools, which are built along a variety of floor plans and with different materials, conduct heat differently.

Most school officials said they would not have to make up class time due to the early closings because several extra “inclement weather” days had been built into the school calendar.

Officials at several national education organizations said last week that there are no agreed-upon standards for when children should be let out of school due to heat. Pediatricians, too, have been unable to develop these standards, said Dr. Mar tin C. Ushkow, chairman of the committee on school health of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“You just have to use common sense,” he said. “When it gets too hot, kids shouldn’t be in the classroom.”

“If they aren’t comfortable, it will affect their performance,” he added. “The younger the child, the more susceptible they are to environmental disturbances.”

105 Degrees

In Hammonton, N.J., the temperature in one elementary-school classroom hit 105 degrees, said George Sharp, the director of special projects for the district. Students were taught the rest of the day in the air-conditioned library, he said

When the temperature hit 90 degrees indoors by 9 A.M. the next day, Mr. Sharp said, the district decided to dismiss all elementary-school students by 1 P.M. and all middle- and high-school students by noon.

District Wide, he said, more students visited the nurse because they felt uncomfortable and warm.

“You give kids a lot of water breaks, and you give them juice,” he said. “The problem is that kids are most susceptible to heat stroke.”

Unlike its surrounding suburbs, the Washington public schools were closed early on only one day, May 31. Cheryl Y. Johnson, a spokesman for the district, said officials were loathe to close schools early because for some students, “the schoolhouse is the only place where they can get a meal during the day or receive regular shelter and supervision.”

But the decision to keep schools open or to close them was also difficult in the suburbs, said Dolores Bohen, a spokesman for the Fairfax, Va., district, which closed schools an hour earlier than normal for two days.

Although about two-thirds of the district’s schools have air conditioning, she said, all schools have to follow the same schedule, because all the school-bus schedules are interconnected.

She also noted that about a dozen parents called the superintendent’s office to request that, in the name of educational equity, no school use air conditioning.

Heated Responses

The high temperatures, combined with the lack of air conditioning, elicited heated responses from some educators.

In Washington, for example, about 25 of the 35 teachers at Rabaut Junior High School staged a mid-day walkout on May 30, to pro test that the school remained open after several days of more than 90 degree weather.

Ms. Johnson said a number of students also joined the walkout. The school, she said, does have air conditioning, but it was broken. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, laced advertisements in several of the state’s newspapers to protest the lack of air conditioning in schools. The advertisement, which ran with the headline, “Even Prisons Are Air Conditioned!” asked, “When was the last time a business executive had to work in an office without air conditioning?”

To improve the situation, the union said the legislature should re store funds that had been cut from the Quality Education Act and should pass a school building and renovation bill.

A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 1991 edition of Education Week as Heat Wave Reopens Debate Over School-Closing Policies