Across the nation, a new school year is about to start amid record-breaking stretches of scorching heat and sporadic spikes in poor air-quality conditions. Individual districts’ preparedness to confront these weather-related challenges varies widely.
But an aging infrastructure coupled with these increasingly hot temperatures are factoring into districts’ struggles to keep up with cooling demands.
“The average school building is 50 years old,” said Mike Pickens, the executive director of the National Council on School Facilities. “Forty-one percent of schools in our country need their HVAC system updated or replaced.”
Pickens advises districts to be “proactive, preventive, or even predictive” when it comes to maintenance of school buildings’ heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning, or HVAC, systems. But the sudden onslaught of heat and poor air quality that is pummeling most of the nation this summer has increased the urgency for air-controlled school buildings.
Coordinated efforts to retrofit aging facilities with air conditioning
Baltimore County Public Schools, a large district in Maryland with 176 schools, in 2021 completed the installation of air conditioning in all of its 200 buildings—the result of long-standing collective efforts between parents, staff, and local officials, according to Charles Herndon, the school system’s spokesperson.
Herndon noted that the district’s buildings are old, built between the 1940’s and 1970’s, and that prior to air conditioning installation, its schools frequently were forced to close early due to high temperatures. Now, Herndon said, along with air-conditioned buildings, the district counts filter cleaning as part of daily operations—a change that began during COVID.
Local parent-teacher associations were at the forefront of bringing air conditioning to Baltimore County schools, according to Leslie Weber, the president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, Inc. “Advocacy began nearly 15 years ago. But eventually, all schools became fully or partially air-conditioned,” she wrote in an email.
Just over the county line, an effort continues to bring air conditioning to Baltimore City school buildings. To date, 15 of the city’s 156 schools either do not have air conditioning or have air conditioning that is currently under repair, according to the district’s website.
A letter posted on the district’s website, dated August 2022, made clear that meeting air-conditioning standards is just one part of a much broader challenge to the district’s aging facilities: “The district’s buildings overall are the oldest of any school district in the state, and numerous buildings need significant system upgrades or complete replacement. [Baltimore] City Schools does not have sufficient funds to address these needs or even to perform necessary basic and preventative maintenance with the frequency recommended under industry standards.”
Experts in beating the heat
Some districts in areas of the country accustomed to hot weather may be better prepared for it. That appears to be the case at Death Valley Unified School District, whose tiny community of approximately 30 students spans about 6,000 square miles of the Mojave Desert. Here, average daily high temperatures in August and September are expected to be 114 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively.
Jim Copeland, Death Valley’s schools superintendent, said that all the district buildings and vehicles are air-conditioned. Classrooms contain what he referred to as ultra-efficient, mini-split air-conditioner units. The district’s school buses, which travel up to 50 miles one way to pick up students in the sprawling rural community, possess oversized air-conditioning units. And bus drivers stop at individual homes, rather than predetermined bus stops, so that students aren’t waiting outside in the heat.
“We’re really serious about people not getting heat exhaustion,” said Copeland.
Too hot to handle
But even in areas accustomed to high heat, the ever-increasing duration and intensity of heat present challenges.
“The reality is that the city is becoming dangerous for everyone, particularly students,” said Marisol Garcia, president of the Arizona Education Association and a longtime middle-school social studies teacher in Phoenix, where the temperature has reached 110 degrees or more at least 22 days during 2023.
“I think about my indigenous ancestors. They did not live here in the summer. They moved to higher elevations,” said Garcia. She has taught in school communities made up mainly of underserved immigrants living in homes that often don’t have air conditioning. “They see school as the safest place to be,” she said.
But schools don’t provide all the answers. When it’s too hot for recess, kids have to stay indoors all day. Even if students were sent to play outside in the heat, they wouldn’t be able to get on slides and swings because they’re too hot to the touch, Garcia observed. Artificial grass that some schools in Arizona have installed to reduce the need to water schoolgrounds reach extreme temperatures, and smell like burning plastic in the high heat, she said.
“Usually, by the end of April, the heat is unbearable,” Garcia said. “Now, it stays that way until October.”