This week marks the last of the first days of school. In some school districts, classes have already been in session for several weeks, and they’ve been hot ones. Teachers are bringing fans from home and schools are closing because temperature control is too challenging.
Alex, a teacher in the Bay Area, says conditions in her school have been particularly bad this year; many buildings in the region are not designed for high heat, thanks to the historically temperate climate. Her classroom doesn’t have openable windows, so she uses a fan to try to suck air in from the cooler hallway, but it’s not enough.
“Students will ask to go to the bathroom more often just to get into the hallway where it’s cooler,” she told TalkPoverty. She said the heat makes students feel sluggish and unfocused, a problem particularly acute for young women in her class who struggle with body image, and stay tightly wrapped up even in high temperatures. “I also notice that I tend to run out of energy a lot faster on hot days.”
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Not ideal for a high school teacher trying to keep order in a classroom of 16-year-olds, even one who loves her job and is passionate about education.
This is a problem that’s only going to get worse due to the confluence of rising temperatures thanks to climate change — average temperatures in the U.S. could increase by as much as 12 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100 and have already risen several degrees since 1900 — and declining school funding. Schools that don’t overheat today are going to in the future.
Education budgets were cut deeply during the Great Recession and some states haven’t returned to their pre-Recession funding levels; capital spending across the country hasn’t recovered to pre-recession levels either. As a result, schools that urgently need temperature control updates along with other infrastructure improvements face an uphill struggle to increase their budgets.
Overheated classrooms aren’t just uncomfortable. They can actively inhibit health and learning. There’s a large body of evidence showing that air conditioning can improve student health and academic performance, and research as far back as 1984 on the effects of learning in a hot classroom.
A May 2018 paper found that a temperature increase of just one degree can reduce the amount learned over the course of the school year by 1 percent. The researchers estimate that around 30 percent of schools in the U.S. lack air conditioning, and that even within hot areas with widespread air conditioning penetration, kids in low-income schools are less likely to have access to have cooling at school.
They also argue systemic inequality can exacerbate this phenomenon among low-income students of color, who live in hotter regions and are more likely to attend schools without adequate temperature control.
Jisung Park, one of the researchers, said that, “What we’re finding is totally consistent with the last mile of the school desegregation movement not having been completed … the neighborhood-level disparities driven by residential wealth still very much hold true.”
Park, an environmental economist, is swift to note that simply installing air conditioning — itself a known contributor to climate change — is not the solution. Greening electric infrastructure, taxing carbon, and taking other measures to tackle climate change is key, he said.
So is investing in school infrastructure, including new buildings; maintenance to bring schools up to new standards; and retrofitting to help schools adapt, inside and out, to climate change. That must include rich and poor districts alike, or the inequalities they observe will perpetuate themselves.
An Oklahoma educator who works in a school with a high percentage of low-income black students sees the consequences of being housed in outdated school buildings without adequate resources firsthand. Her classroom can get up to 80 degrees, and it takes a noticeable toll on her students. “I’m trying,” overheated students will tell her. “I’m tired, it’s too hot in here.”
Her school actually has a climate control system, complete with thermostats in every classroom. But it is not well-maintained. It can take hours for the district to respond when teachers put in a request for help.
For one of her colleagues across the hall, that means suffocating in heat as high as 90 degrees until her class is relocated to a comparatively cooler spot. But, she says, in the state with some of the worst education funding in the country, there are so many things going wrong that overheated classrooms aren’t at the top of her list.
This isn’t just a problem indoors. It’s also an issue in the schoolyard. Schools serving low-income students tend to have less greenery, and that’s not just an aesthetic problem. Trees, shrubs, and other plants can help to control temperatures, including indoors, when they’re planted strategically to provide shade to a building’s hot spots.
The lack of shade also increases exposure to harmful UV radiation on the playground, setting kids up for future health inequalities. From the moment they walk into school for the first time, some students are set up for failure, with Park noting that access to greenery can improve temperature control, but also offer mental and physical health benefits.
Oklahoma is not the only state struggling with school infrastructure, from campus trees to sound roofs. Across the United States, kids are attending classes in outdated, poorly-maintained, inadequate, and sometimes unsafe buildings. Schools across the country are struggling with lead contamination. Environmental Protection Agency regulations govern schools that maintain their own water supplies, but not those using municipal water that may get contaminated on its way to the tap. Kids are overheating, and they can’t even drink the school’s water.
It will cost $200 billion nationwide to bring America’s schools into good condition. But schools, especially low-income ones, face a funding crisis. They rely on property tax revenues alongside some state funding to fund capital improvements, pay teachers and staff, and cover the numerous other expenses associated with running a school. Wealthy districts have a larger tax base and more access to loans and bond issues, and consequently spend more; their students are more likely to attend class in appropriately-cooled classrooms, to drink from lead-free taps, and to have access to well-maintained amenities.
“Targeting school facility upgrades should be part of a long-overdue federal infrastructure bill,” said Park, “or an education reform package.” Modernizing, and installing, HVAC systems is not a trivial task. Failure to make these investments, however, will keep low-income children in the U.S. at a permanent, sweaty, disadvantage.
Editors’ note: By request, the teachers in this article have been anonymized.