Education Opinion

We’re Having a Heat Wave

By Susan Graham — June 14, 2010 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

It’s hot! About 92 degrees. But as any Southerner would explain: it’s not the heat; it’s the humidity.The heat index is 103 degrees. (It’s cooled down a little since this afternoon.) You can cut the air with a knife. And did I mention that my air conditioning is broken?

Now you think that this is a personal problem, and it is. It is a long sad tale of a 60ish year old house and its 60ish year old residents. It features AC Repairman #1, The Electrician, and AC Repairman #2. The plot boils (an unfortunate, but appropriate choice of words) down to this: It’s hot. It’s been hot. And it’s going to be hot until Thursday, June 25 when AC Repairman #2 and his crew come to install a whole new system. The denouement closes with me writing an incredibly large check to AC Repairman #2 and being grateful for the opportunity to do so... Because then it won’t be hot!

Let me qualify this by saying I’ve been much hotter. I live on a hilltop in Central Virginia in a house shaded by huge oak trees. There are big windows and ceiling fans in every room and as long as we move slowly and do nothing it’s not too unpleasant. Unpleasant is the kind of hot I grew up with in East Texas. Temperatures hovered around 100 degrees for months at a time, 80% humidity was no big thing, and only rich people had air conditioning. We had an attic fan and a big heavy black oscillating table fan that always reminded me of a giant bug of some kind. In the heat of summer, Mother told us that we had to lie down for an hour in the heat of the day so that we wouldn’t get polio. I would lie across the bed with a wet washcloth on my forehead, reading, dozing or just watching the big black fan go back and forth and thinking about how, if I stuck my finger there, it would slice it right off. We had to continue the afternoon quiet time even after we lined up in the school cafeteria to eat a sugar cube with the Salk vaccine. I’m not sure that the real goal of rest time was saving us from polio, but it did contribute to my love of reading and it probably saved my mother’s sanity because with four kids and no AC it was too hot.

Okay, that was way back in the day, but 14 years ago, I was still teaching in an un-air-conditioned school. Each classroom had a fan and when it got really hot we cooled down by taking off our shoes and going barefoot on the terrazzo floor. If the heat index went over 105 degrees by noon, we got to go home. If it hit the 105 after twelve, it was too late to change the buses, so we just sat there barefoot in front of the fan until it was time to go home. At least the kids didn’t misbehave much. They didn’t have the energy. It was too hot!

In a 1999 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics it was reported that

Air conditioning was not available but needed by roughly a quarter of the schools for their classrooms (24 percent).

You might not be surprised that there were fewer administrative offices without air than there were classrooms. Apparently, children and teachers are presumed to have a higher threshold for heat exhaustion, but for administrators, it was just too hot!

The NCES 2003 guidelines for school maintenance indicate that, to provide a safe environment , schools buildings should :

  • Maintain indoor air relative humidity below 70 percent.*

  • Maintain indoor air temperature at comfortable levels (68-72°F when the room is being heated and 70-78°F when the room is being cooled).

*Editorial note: It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity!

In 2007 NCES asked public school principals to describe the extent to which various environmental factors interfered with classroom instruction. This is what they found out.

In permanent buildings, heating and air conditioning were the most frequently reported interferences, with less than half of schools reporting that air conditioning did not interfere at all with instruction. Air conditioning interfered to a moderate or major extent in permanent buildings in 16 percent of schools; heating interfered to a moderate or major extent in 13 percent of schools. Schools reported less severe interference from heating and air conditioning in portable buildings, with 11 percent of schools reporting moderate to major interference from air conditioning, and 9 percent reporting the same from heating.

And what does all of this have to do with the state of public education policy? Well, one of the silver bullets for school improvement is year-round school. The argument is made, sometimes rather snidely by city folk, that we are no longer an agrarian society and there is absolutely no reason to close schools for the summer. This is true to a point, but that’s not really the whole picture. Please consider the following:

  • There are still many schools that do not have air conditioning.
  • Air conditioning is the single biggest consumer of electricity in most buildings.
  • Year-round school would increase energy consumption while school budgets shrink.
  • Most kids ride school buses to school and school buses are not air conditioned and at 3:30 p.m. in August ( or even late June), it’s too hot!

Pundits like to point fingers and use the “agrarian culture” argument to validate their claim that schools are resistant to adapting for 21st century learning needs. I would argue that those individuals either don’t know or refuse to acknowledge that many of our schools are unprepared to provide a “21st century learning experience” because their plants are still functioning as post WWII facilities with insufficient HVAC systems.

Furthermore, even if they did have adequate systems, they would probably have insufficient funding to maintain and operate them. And please don’t tell me about how kids learned without AC back in the day or how they are learning without being coddled in third world countries today unless you are promoting early 20th century or third world education standards for America’s youth.

That will just make me cranky, and it’s too hot!

Image: Accuweather.com

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.