It may be cold outside now, but summer is coming.
2023 was the hottest year on record for the Earth, with extremely warm temperatures starting in the spring and stretching into the fall in many U.S. cities. Experts say that 2024 might get even hotter, due to the effects of climate change.
Yet many schools are ill-equipped for such temperatures, causing them to close, dismiss early, or shift to virtual classes during a heat wave. Aging school buildings don’t all have air-conditioning, especially units that can handle particularly hot days.
But there are infrastructure changes that schools can—and should—make to better prepare their communities for hotter days ahead, experts said in a webinar last month. It was hosted by the Luskin Center for Innovation, a University of California Los Angeles-based group researching environmental challenges; Ten Strands, a nonprofit for environmental literacy in California; and UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit that focuses on schools’ response to climate change.
“For some students, school might be the only time where they get a chance to cool off during the day,” said Kelly Turner, an associate professor of urban planning and geography at UCLA and the associate director of the Luskin Center for Innovation, during the webinar.
And research shows that students learn less and perform worse on tests in hot classrooms. Heat can also affect children’s physical and emotional well-being.
Here are four things school district officials can do to make sure their campuses can withstand extreme temperatures.
1. Cool down classrooms
Ideally, Turner said, the temperature in classrooms should be under 80 degrees.
Cooling equipment, like air conditioning or energy-efficient heat pumps, can help. Past research suggests that anywhere between one-third and one-half of U.S. classrooms don’t have adequate—or any—air conditioning.
But design features of the building can also cool down classrooms. For instance, cool roofs absorb less solar energy than conventional roofs, lowering the temperature of the building. White roofing products stay coolest in the sun.
Adding insulation or double-paned windows to the school buildings can also help keep temperatures stable, Turner said.
2. Add shade to schoolyards
“On hot sunny days, schoolyard surfaces can get really, really hot,” Turner said. “Grass gets hot, but asphalt gets hotter.”
If the temperature outside is 92 degrees Fahrenheit, the surface temperature for grass is 95 degrees, asphalt is 149 degrees, and a rubber mat—sometimes used as flooring for playgrounds—is 165 degrees. The asphalt and rubber get so hot, they can burn skin.
And there are other health risks involved with playing outside in the heat: Children can become dehydrated and be at risk for heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
But the answer shouldn’t be to keep students inside all day, Turner said: “Children need time outside to support their learning inside, and they need it for their well-being.”
Instead, she recommends that schools shade their outdoor spaces, which can significantly cool down hot surfaces.
Trees, of course, can provide shade cover, as well as other environmental benefits, but they require maintenance and time to grow. Shade sails are inexpensive, immediate, and can shade large areas, but schools might need to acquire permits and navigate state codebefore installing them.
Long term, districts should consider designing school buildings with multiple stories, courtyards, and other features that can block the sun from schoolyards, Turner said.
“Buildings are actually one of the most efficient ways to provide shade,” she said.
And, “one of the important things to do is to reconsider how we design our playtime for children,” Turner said. “We have designed ... really asphalt-heavy systems based on an asphalt-heavy definition of play—things like basketball or handball.”
But a green, nature-based schoolyard can offer alternative ways of play, while staying cooler, she said.
3. Plan ahead
School staff should establish guidelines for extreme heat to protect both students and employees, Turner said. This could include an emergency heat plan, with temperature thresholds specifying when outdoor activities should be modified or canceled.
“There’s only so much you can do with things like shading at a certain point, especially under climate change and extreme heat weather shifting further and further into the fall,” she said.
District officials should also consider sharing an educational packet on heat-related risks and preventative actions with students and their guardians each year, Turner said.
Jonathan Klein, the co-founder and chief executive officer of UndauntedK12, said district leaders should also proactively plan for how they’ll update school buildings and schoolyards to better withstand extreme temperatures.
“A major part of how we will achieve these goals is through end-of-life replacements,” he said. “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.”
4. Take advantage of federal funding
In summer 2022, Congress passed the sweeping Inflation Reduction Act, which invests in clean energy and climate mitigation and resilience. The law opened up significant sources of funding for school districts to upgrade their energy systems.
The package includes a direct pay provision—schools can get reimbursed in cash for installing clean energy on their campuses.
The law “supports a powerful quintet of clean energy technology that we should be deploying in all of our schools,” said Sara Ross, the co-founder of UndauntedK12, during the webinar.
The package will defray the cost of these five technologies: heat pumps that cool buildings, solar panels, solar energy storage, electric school buses, and electric vehicle charging equipment.
The funding is unlimited, noncompetitive, and available until 2033 (even later for the heat pumps), Ross said.
“We can build a strategy for how to maximize these federal dollars to really improve our school buildings,” she said.
There has been one stumbling block in California, however. The California Public Utilities Commission recently reduced the financial incentives of solar panels for schools, owners of apartment buildings, and businesses.
Schools in the state will now have to pay more for solar energy, instead of saving money, Ross said, adding that California fumbled the potential impact of the federal legislation. UndauntedK-12 is exploring possible workarounds, including a potential carveout for schools.
The experts on the webinar recommended that district officials partner with local and state officials to navigate potential funding sources, as well as plans for revamping infrastructure.
Turner and others at the Luskin Center also released a heat-resilient schools resource kit, with resources on protecting students from extreme heat.