Unprecedented Heatwave Forces School Shutdowns, Threatens Student Learning

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An unusually severe, end-of-summer heatwave is currently plaguing schools across the Northeast and Midwest, pushing temperatures into the triple digits — an unprecedented high for early September in these regions.

The worrisome escalation of global warming has made classrooms more susceptible to intense heat, particularly at the peak and waning periods of summer, thereby extending the adverse effects of heat deep into the school year. Schools lacking efficient air conditioning systems are particularly challenged. Many educational districts have been compelled to cancel classes, adjust timetables, and suspend extracurricular activities in a bid to avoid exposing students to the discomfort and dangers of excessively heated classrooms.

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According to Kevin Lanza, assistant professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, as temperatures continue to soar across the globe and summers grow longer, extreme heat could pose an issue similar to snow days in calamitous winters. He forecasts an increased frequency of extremely hot days in the future, which could impinge on the traditional school year.

The heat doesn’t only present physical health risks; it also poses significant challenges to cognitive development. A study from the Harvard Kennedy School from 2018 revealed that in air conditioner-free classrooms, students’ annual learning growth diminishes by 1% per each 1-degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature.

This situation underscores a stark reality: schools are ill-equipped to navigate the harsh weather conditions they currently face, asserts Laura Schifter, a senior fellow at the non-profit think tank Aspen Institute. She urges educational institutions to proactively consider the implications of climate change and formulate comprehensive response plans.

The oppressive heat caused Patricia Burton significant concern after her 9-year-old asthmatic son, Delano, was dismissed from City Springs Elementary School in Baltimore earlier than expected. Her fears extend to all children attending that school, as she understands the potential dangers of the blistering heat, especially given the inadequate air conditioning system in the school.

Alarmingly, Baltimore’s temperatures are expected to reach 101 degrees on Wednesday, an ignominy previously reached only thrice since 1872. This has led City Public Schools, including Delano’s, across the city to declare an early, heat-induced holiday. Schools in the Midwest, including Milwaukee, Chicago, and Detroit, have similarly revised schedules or declared shutdowns due to the punishing heat. Philadelphia is not immune either, with the city expecting a streak of four consecutive days of sweltering 95-degree-high weather.

As part of necessary measures, the School District of Philadelphia indicated that several schools with “inadequate cooling” would release students three hours early. Similar stories echo nationwide, highlighting the ramping efforts to install updated air conditioning and the requisite supporting electrical systems. While acknowledging that climate change plays a significant role in these disruptions, experts have also pointed to the aging infrastructure of many school buildings which were constructed in a significantly different climate era.

In response to this mounting issue, certain states have seen community advocates campaign to make schools healthier, safer, and less reliant on fossil fuel energy. Proposed solutions include replacing heat-trapping asphalt in playgrounds with green spaces featuring ample shade, and replacing traditional fossil fuel-powered air conditioners with heat pumps to cool buildings.

“This is where you have to shift resources, whether that’s within that region or at the federal level,” Lanza noted. “Learning in an environment that has safe and comfortable temperatures should be a human right, an expectation that our existing setup is currently failing to meet.”