Student Well-Being

What Educators Need to Know About Schools and Hot Weather

By Arianna Prothero — August 16, 2023 4 min read
Close crop of the earth and a thermometer showing extreme hot temperature all in the haze of yellow and orange colors.
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From the Northwest to the South, vast swaths of the United States are grappling with extreme heat heading into the school year with the potential to harm students’ health and learning.

Louisiana’s governor this week declared a state of emergency over the extreme heat the state is experiencing. Districts such as Boston in the Northeast—which has traditionally enjoyed mild summer temperatures—installed AC units in all classrooms occupied by students this summer. In Dallas, which is used to high heat, triple digit temperatures strained the districts’ air conditioning systems and nearly 100 classrooms had issues staying cool this first week of classes. Exessive heat may force more cancelations across the country as the school year starts.

Scientists say that extreme temperatures are trending upward. As the average school year becomes hotter, here are five facts for educators to understand:

1. Record-breaking temperatures are the new normal.

Climate change is causing stronger and longer heat waves. A recent analysis from the World Weather Attribution, an international collective of scientists measuring the effects of climate change, says that July’s global record-breaking heat would have been “virtually impossible” to reach without climate change driving up temperatures. And, the report warns, extreme heat waves will likely become more frequent.

UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit supporting schools’ transitions to zero carbon emissions, has been tracking news reports of school closures related to extreme heat, wildfires, and other extreme weather events. UndauntedK12 co-founder Sara Ross said while there are limitations to their data collection, it’s clear that many heat-related closings of schools are clustered in the Northeast. That’s likely because rising temperatures and outdated or absent air conditioning systems disproportionately affect schools in what have been historically colder climates.

2. Many schools do not have air conditioning.

The average school building in the United States is 50 years old, and many of them have outdated heating, ventilating, and air conditioning, or HVAC, systems. A Government Accountability Office study using 2019 survey data found that 41 percent of districts reported that their HVAC systems needed an urgent upgrade.

There aren’t great data on how many schools lack air conditioning nationally. Because school facilities are mostly managed and funded locally, there isn’t a federal agency tracking this issue, said Ross.

However, in a survey conducted in the summer of 2021 by the EdWeek Research Center, two-thirds of district leaders said that about 3 in 4 of their school buildings have air conditioning in classrooms. While 88 percent of respondents in the South said all their buildings have air conditioning, only 20 percent of respondents in the North said the same.

3. Heat makes it harder for students to learn.

Several studies have found that heat affects students’ ability to learn and perform academically. For example, one study analyzed 4.5 million exit exams from New York City high schools and found that students scored much lower on the test on a 90 F-degree day than on a 72 F-degree day. Another study looking at standardized achievement data globally found that the rate of student learning decreases with a rise in the number of school days with temperatures greater than 80 F degrees.

Heat also affects students’ behavior, according to another study, which found that extreme temperatures increase school absences and disciplinary referrals.

When schools cancel classes, students lose out on in-person instructional time, said Ross.

“We certainly know coming out of COVID the massive importance of in-person learning, and how lost in-person learning time effects young people’s performance in school and potentially their long-term learning,” she said. “We’re having these breaks and disruptions in our in-person learning, and those disruptions are inequitably felt. Communities that have been redlined, underinvested in over decades are the ones where the school buildings are more out of date.”

See also

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

4. Heat islands make things worse.

The heat-island effect, sometimes called the urban heat-island effect, is where the built environment such as black tops, concrete buildings, and a lack of vegetation intensify the heat, making urban areas hotter than surrounding suburban and rural ones. Even within a city, some neighborhoods are hotter than others—sometimes by several degrees.

A 2020 report by the Trust for Public Land found that 36 percent of students nationally attend school within an urban heat island. Additional research has found that low-income residents and people of color are more likely to live in the hottest neighborhoods within a city.

5. Federal funding will help schools cool off.

Updating HVAC systems with federal COVID-19 funding is among the top three priorities for districts in every region in the United States, according to a 2022 analysis by FutureEd.

Districts expected to spend $5.7 billion on HVAC with the relief funds, according to a 2022 report by FutureEd. That dollar amount represents 9 percent of all Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding and nearly 40 percent of the facilities-related ESSER spending, the organization found.

Schools also have a huge opportunity to use federal Inflation Reduction Act funds to upgrade their heating and cooling systems, said Ross. Starting now, systems installed will be eligible for rebates under the law, although federal funding won’t be available until next year, Ross said.

Those rebates will also make the far more efficient electric heat-pump systems—which both heat and cool air—cheaper to install than legacy gas boilers, Ross said, which are among the largest contributors to schools’ energy output.
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