Student Well-Being

The School Year Started Off Hot. Experts Say It Wasn’t a Fluke

By Caitlynn Peetz — September 08, 2023 4 min read
Students beat the heat by eating lunch outside on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023, on the front Steps of South Philadelphia High School in Philadelphia, Pa.
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As climate change causes the world to warm at a record-breaking pace, experts expect extreme summer heat to be more intense and last well past the prime summer months, which could lead to more challenging starts to the school year.

Paired with a decades-old underinvestment in school infrastructure, the first week of September was a prime example of what schools can expect as aging buildings meet sweltering temperatures.

In cities across the northeastern United States, dozens of schools closed, dismissed early, or shifted to virtual classes as temperatures climbed into the mid-90s. Many of the closures were necessary because the schools don’t have air conditioning, according to local media reports.

“It’s a crisis … that we can’t provide students and teachers with safe, healthy, and comfortable learning environments,” said Joseph G. Allen, an associate professor and director of the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University. “It’s not a one-off. This was the hottest year on record, and it’s going to get hotter.”

The World Meteorological Organization and Copernicus Climate Change Service announced on Wednesday the Earth experienced the hottest-ever June through August on record, and August was the second-hottest month ever, behind only July 2023.

The higher temperatures has spread to northern climates and other areas that are typically spared from extreme heat and generally aren’t as prepared as other areas.

And there’s no sign of the warming slowing down, so it’s incumbent on schools to take steps to respond to what is likely the new normal, experts say.

There’s no national inventory of how many schools don’t have proper cooling systems, but it’s more common than some may expect. One expert recently told EdWeek that 41 percent of schools need their HVAC systems updated or replaced.

Those schools are at a higher risk of having to close or dismiss early when temperatures rise.

The impact of those closures isn’t yet quantifiable. But the more time students spend in classrooms, the better, and losing precious instructional time, especially as students are still striving to regain academic ground lost during the pandemic, is problematic, said Jonathan Klein, founder of UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit that focuses on schools’ response to the climate crisis.

“Extreme heat is undermining schools’ ability to educate and keep kids safe, and it’s not going away,” he said.

Filtration systems are important year-round

Even if schools stay open in hot conditions, uncomfortably warm classrooms can hinder students’ ability to focus on their work.

Allen said school and district leaders may be more inclined to make the expensive, time-consuming long-term investments to air filtration systems if they embrace the reality that clean and comfortable environments are beneficial every day, not just when heat strikes. Good air quality has been linked to students missing fewer days of school, and being more alert in the classroom, and performing better on standardized reading tests, he said.

They also play a key role in filtering out airborne viruses and diseases, like COVID-19 and RSV, that can make students and teachers sick.

“The way we operate our school buildings determines if they’re a place of refuge or a place that exacerbates the problem,” Allen said. “So we shouldn’t just be thinking of these things a couple times a year when there’s a big threat that rolls through. It’s influencing kids’ health and learning every single day.”

All of these problems together should act as a wake-up call for districts to be more intentional with their facility planning, Klein said. Districts should seriously consider making long-term plans for systemically updating ventilation systems (replacing systems that run on fossil fuels with solar powered equipment, for example), he said.

But even if all of the funds schools needed were immediately available, that work can’t be completed in just a few months, so investing in some shorter-term solutions would be beneficial, too, Klein said.

Those could include making sure students have water bottles accessible to them at all times, installing shades on windows, using more fans, and educating staff and students about the signs of heat exhaustion.

“We really need to plan ahead to avoid those stop-gap measures that are much less efficient and long-term beneficial than addressing cooling and filtration issues throughout the building,” Klein said.

Often, it is schools in poorer communities or with larger populations of students of color that lack adequate air conditioning, Klein said. Those students already tend to struggle most to keep pace with their white and affluent peers, so subjecting them to an environment that’s not conducive to learning, or sending them home to avoid the heat, is especially problematic, he said.

“It’s also an equity issue,” he said, “and we need to treat it with urgency and intentionality.”

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