With an estimated 36,000 schools across the country needing upgrades to their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, heat waves hit schools hard this summer. This week, school districts in five states ended school early on Tuesday as temperatures soared, and some schools in at least two cities held school remotely.
There’s good reason for keeping kids out of classrooms during extreme heat. “Children can be affected by heat stress in multiple ways,” Lindsey Burghardt, chief science officer at Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, told The Boston Globe. “With extreme heat, children don’t sweat as much as adults where the adult body uses sweating to cool itself off. And if bodies can’t cool themselves, heat can bring on a variety of effects.”
“We really worry about the physical health of children when the temperature gets above 90 degrees,” Dr. Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, told the Globe. Those temperatures are entirely possible in classrooms: A Philadelphia teacher told NPR that his classroom had been at 86 degrees even on days when it was in the 70s outdoors, and he had seen temperatures as high as 93 in his classroom.
In many of the schools that don’t have air conditioning, it’s not as simple as just installing it—even if they had the funding to do so. Older school buildings may not have the electrical systems needed to support air conditioning, or may have other infrastructure problems, like one Maryland district where the existing pipes and insulation weren’t adequate for newly installed air conditioning.
While schools in historically cooler areas of the country are less likely to have air conditioning, climate change is increasing the need everywhere. According to a 2022 Washington Post analysis of heat closures, “Philadelphia averaged four such days in 1970; now the figure is eight. In Baltimore, it went from six to 10; in Denver, from six to 11; and in Cleveland, from one to four.”
The problems faced by older and less-funded schools signal that this is an equity issue as well. Kids in lower-income areas are more likely to be in old schools and buildings in need of significant repairs. It poses threats to their health—not just through heat but through mold and air- and water-quality problems—and to their learning. Learning takes a hit when kids are let out of school early but also when they’re sitting in sweltering classrooms, according to multiple studies. Hot classrooms literally contribute to learning gaps.
Climate change, poor U.S. infrastructure and education funding, and longstanding patterns of racial and income inequality are combining to create classrooms that are unhealthy and unsafe for kids and harm their ability to learn. This requires major, ongoing investment in infrastructure: It would take an estimated $1.1 trillion over the next decade to fully replace or modernize all of the schools in the country that need it in every way that they need it—but Congress didn’t even include the $100 billion in school infrastructure funding that President Joe Biden called for in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
HVAC systems aren’t the only urgent need in schools, of course, but the overall $1.1 trillion of need is a sign of the nation’s shameful lack of care for kids and their education. As the shortened school days in too many places across the country this week show, the problem is an immediate one. It’s time for elected officials at every level to get serious about this.
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