School & District Management

How Sweltering Heat Disrupts Learning and What Schools Can Do

By Caitlynn Peetz — June 17, 2024 5 min read
A boy cools off at a fountain during hot weather in Chicago, on June 16, 2024.
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With temperatures expected to be far above average in parts of the Midwest and Northeast, some districts in New York and New Jersey are opting to beat the heat with half-days this week.

The early dismissals where school is still in session are intended to allow students to make their treks home before temperatures hit their highest points. But the sweltering weather is coinciding with state testing, which might make it harder for students to focus and perform well on the exams.

“Classrooms become uncomfortable and present potential health issues in extreme heat,” read a message posted on New York’s East Greenbush school district’s website.

High temperatures are forecasted to peak in the upper-90s across the mid-Atlantic and New England, National Weather Service meteorologist William Churchill told the Associated Press, which is “nothing to sneeze at even in the middle of the summer, let alone this early in the summer.”

While this week’s heat wave settles in after most schools have let out for summer, it serves as a reminder of the challenges districts across the country will face as climate change brings hotter days earlier in the summer and later into the fall, including in regions that haven’t traditionally dealt with extreme heat.

Extreme temperatures are becoming increasingly common and more frequently forcing schools—particularly older buildings with less robust cooling systems—to shut down. The closures can add up to a significant chunk of lost learning time over the years, particularly troubling as students are still recovering from pandemic-era learning gaps, according to researchers.

Outfitting schools with air conditioning units that are equipped to cope with sweltering heat can be expensive and may take years to complete, but it’s important work that districts need to prioritize now, experts say. Without that investment, students will struggle to learn and the heat could threaten their physical and emotional health.

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Composite image of school building and climate change protestors.
Illustration by F. Sheehan/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty and E+)

Heat could hurt students’ test scores

High school students across New York are scheduled to take Regents exams this week, and the required exams cannot be rescheduled due to inclement weather under state law. The extreme heat could have an impact on students’ performance on the exams, which are a graduation requirement, according to research.

Students perform worse on tests when they’re hot, multiple studies have shown. One study that tracked 10 million secondary students’ performance on the PSAT between 2001 and 2014 found that in schools without air conditioning, each 1 degree Fahrenheit increase in the temperature that school year reduced the amount they learned that year by 1 percent.

The effect was three times more damaging for Black and Hispanic students than for white students.

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With only open windows and fans to cool the room down, students enter their non-air-conditioned classroom at Campbell High School in Ewa, Hawaii, on Aug. 3, 2015. Most of Hawaii's public schools don't have air conditioning, and record-high temperatures have left teachers and students saying they can't focus because of the heat. Hawaii lawmakers are saying it's time to cool Hawaii's public schools. A proposal being considered by the House Committee of Finance would fund air conditioning for Hawaii Department of Education schools and expedite the process to get cooling systems installed in classrooms.
Only open windows and fans cooled the room as students arrived at Campbell High School in Ewa, Hawaii, in August, 2015. Most of Hawaii's public schools don't have air conditioning, even as research shows that heat can depress student learning.
Marco Garcia/AP

Another study analyzed data from 4.5 million New York City high school exit exams—a graduation requirement—and found that students scored significantly lower on the standardized state test on a 90-degree day than on a 72-degree day. The study linked exam-time heat exposure with a lower likelihood of on-time high school graduation.

Several superintendents in New York outlined their plans to maintain comfortable testing conditions this week for students taking Regents tests.

The Ithaca school district said its high school uses “lake source cooling,” a system in which cold lake water is circulated through a cooling system in the school before it is returned to the lake.

“While it may be warmer than usual, the building should be comfortable in the areas that are lake source cooled,” the district’s message said.

The Lansing school district said it plans to add additional air conditioning units in testing rooms.

Buffalo schools are releasing students in prekindergarten through 8th grade early and placing water stations throughout the district. The school system noted that high school students won’t be in school the full day due to their Regents exam schedules.

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People attend a ribbon cutting ceremony on May 6, 2024, for the recently-completed River Grove Elementary School in Lake Oswego, Ore.
People attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 6, 2024, for the recently completed River Grove Elementary School in Lake Oswego, Ore., which is built to be climate-resilient, withstanding earthquakes and prolonged power outages from extreme weather.
Courtesy of Alondra Flores

Ways districts can cool down buildings

The ideal temperature range for effective learning in reading and mathematics is 68-74 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a research report by Pennsylvania State University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis.

A report published in 2021 by the Center for Climate Integrity, an environmentalist advocacy organization, found that 1,815 school districts—serving about 10.8 million students, or more than a fifth of the nation’s public school population—will see three more weeks of school days over 80 degrees in 2025 than they did in 1970.

If school districts aren’t prepared, hot buildings can also threaten students’ physical and mental health.

Heat can make people more impulsive and less able to regulate their behavior, which means students may exhibit more behavioral problems on hot days, including increased bullying, according to researchers. Children are also more susceptible to heat-related illnesses than adults.

Experts suggest school districts be intentional in protecting students—particularly student-athletes who have practices and competitions outdoors—from heat illness by adhering to a defined heat-acclimatization process that gradually increases the length of training sessions and the intensity of workouts over the course of the season, as well as ensuring coaches or athletic trainers are trained in monitoring heat safety.

Schools can mitigate the heat through other infrastructure choices, too.

When it’s time to replace a school’s roof, white roofing can lower the building’s temperature by several degrees. Avoid black rubber on playgrounds because it gets very hot. Plant trees to provide natural shade and cool the surrounding air.

“A major part of how we will achieve these goals is through end-of-life replacements,” Jonathan Klein, the co-founder and chief executive officer of UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit that focuses on schools’ response to climate change, told EdWeek in 2022. “We’re not going to have all the money up front, but when it’s time to replace a machine, we need to make a good decision.”

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Conceptual of kids running at school, infrared thermal treatment.
Liz Yap/Education Week and JackF/iStock/Getty

Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
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