The cost of climate change for schools: hot classrooms, shortened days
Most likely, Julie Taylor never heard of a “heat dome” when she ran for a seat on the Box Elder County School Board half a decade ago.
But now the persistent region of high pressure trapping record heat over the west and south — the end of a scorching summer as climate change has made the season hotter and longer — has pushed the school district from northern Utah to extend the four-hour school schedule it used to start the school year because many of its schools are not air-conditioned.
Because the costs of building and improving schools are largely borne by local Utah taxpayers, school boards carefully select projects covered by school bonding. Sometimes projects like air conditioning a school do not succeed.
“It’s hard to pass a bond. Even though people really want air conditioning, when you talk to the community at large, they’re like, “Oh, I took care of that.” It’s only for a few weeks at the start of the year and a few weeks at the end of the year,” said Taylor, chairman of the board.
Box Elder School District Superintendent Steve Carlsen said he heard that as well. But that was before the recent forecast for back-to-back days of 100 degrees and more temperatures.
“You have both ends of the spectrum. There’s, “Hey, we’ve all done it and we need to toughen up” and “My kids are coming home sick.”
“We see that there are kids, even on those half days, at noon, some of those kids…start to feel a little gross,” Carlsen said.
As the school district replaces buildings, new schools are being fitted with cooling systems, such as Golden Spike Elementary School in Brigham City, which just opened.
The district has targeted more than $5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to install air conditioning in its middle schools, but supply chain issues have thwarted plans to install chillers in time for back to school, Carlsen said. The units are expected to arrive in March, he said.
Going forward, the district will likely use local funding to equip all of its elementary schools with air conditioning “because it looks like our world is getting warmer and we’re going to have to have it,” he said.
During this time, the district will observe “minimum days” to help cope with the heat.
The Weber School District also announced it will move to shortened school days Tuesday and Wednesday because several of its schools lack cooling systems and record high temperatures are expected.
One of the schools, Roosevelt Elementary School, was built in 1957.
“It’s one of our oldest schools and the one that’s really been affected by the heat wave. We had a lot of concerns at this school yesterday,” Weber District spokesperson Lane Findlay said.
Duchesne High School, which is undergoing renovations and currently has no air conditioning, will close classes daily at 1 p.m. the second week of school so that students and staff are not in class in the heat of the day.
The Tooele School District also faced heat-related issues last week when the school’s cooling unit failed and classrooms became excessively hot.
Classes at Tooele High School were interrupted on Wednesday mid-morning. The unit was repaired and school resumed the next day.
Record summer heat
The National Weather Service announced this week that Salt Lake City International Airport reported the hottest summer weather on record, which spans the months of June, July and August.
If there’s one saving grace to the record summer heat, it’s that it prepared students and families for the hot weather at the start of the school year.
Students in the Canyons School District returned to school on Aug. 15 when it was around 90 degrees, district spokesman Jeff Haney said.
“We have also had several hot days since day one. So our students played during recess and lunch in temperatures that are not very different from what we will see in the next few days,” he said.
“We also realize that the children have been spending a lot of time in the sun over the past few months. Throughout the summer months the kids played outside, went swimming, visited amusement parks and zoos, and camped and hiked when temperatures were 90-100 degrees,” Haney said.
All but one of the schools in the Canyons District, Union Middle School, have cooling systems, but they will too when rebuilt.
The impact of heat on learning
Although the summer heat has helped students acclimate to back-to-school conditions, research into the effects of heat on learning raises concerns.
According to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, cumulative heat exposure over a school year is associated with lower levels of student achievement.
Without air conditioning, every 1 degree increase in average school year temperature is associated with a 1% drop in the amount learned during the school year. For air-conditioned schools, however, the negative effects virtually disappear.
As Carlsen explains, comfortable classroom conditions help ensure effective teaching and learning.
“If they’re in a room that’s over 80 years old, it’s pretty hard to learn,” he said.
The research also found that low-income and minority students are more likely to attend schools without air conditioning.
A 2017 study from Harvard University found that the odds of a student failing a test on a day with temperatures above 90 degrees were 12% higher than if the test was taken on a 72-degree day.
Heat day notice?
Yándary Zavala Chatwin, spokesperson for the Salt Lake City School District, said top administrators were discussing the recent wave of high temperatures, some wondering as the impacts of global warming are more realized if schools in Utah would be subject to heat day protocols, similar to bad air day protocols seen when outside air conditions are unhealthy.
No such protocol currently exists, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Currently, principals make site-based decisions at Salt Lake schools, Chatwin said.
“They will check things like the temperature of playground equipment and make sure the kids all have water before and after a recess. Recesses are not too long and generally go well in the morning. It’s the afternoon time they may have to adjust a bit, but we don’t have a formal protocol at the moment,” she said.
Carlsen said the heat also makes it difficult for buildings to cool overnight so buildings with cooling systems can operate optimally when the doors open the next morning.
Carlsen grew up in southeast Idaho, where nighttime temperatures typically dip into the 50s this time of year.
“That’s part of the problem. It’s not just the high but it’s the low during the evening,” Carlsen said. “All that concrete and all that brick that’s soaking up that heat and it takes a long time to cool it down.”
Doug Perry, spokesman for the Murray City School District, said building maintenance workers were running fans at night to help bring down core temperatures in his schools.
“We’re happy to have a three-day weekend ahead of us to take a break,” he said.
Currently, the school district does not have a long-term plan to deal with the current wave of record-breaking temperatures “because this is a fairly unprecedented event – the hottest temperatures on record. But s “This is an ongoing trend, our school board and our community will assess and consider options,” Perry said.