Top

New Template Policy Language for Addressing Extreme Heat and Air Quality in Schools

New Template Policy Language for Addressing Extreme Heat and Air Quality in Schools

Written by Sharon Ron, Assistant Director of Public Health

To support schools in addressing extreme heat, MAPC partnered with the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards through the Massachusetts Asthma Action Partnership’s (MAAP) Healthy Environments Advance Learning project to develop new template policy language for addressing extreme heat and air quality in schools.

June 17, 2024 - As climate change ushers in longer, more intense summer heat waves across Massachusetts, an increasing number of school districts are grappling with the impacts of extreme temperatures in the classroom. Excessive indoor heat can disrupt learning, while also posing health risks to students and staff.  

High indoor air temperatures, combined with humidity, can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke in schools.1 Persistently hot weather can exacerbate existing health conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.2 In Massachusetts, 12.9% of children have asthma- among the highest rate in the country.3 Furthermore, exposure to high temperatures and air pollution can impair cognitive function, learning, and academic performance.4, 5, 6 Making learning environments healthier not only reduces the risk of illness and injury, it can also reduce learning loss caused by absenteeism, reduce disparities in academic achievement, and improve long-term health and financial outcomes. 

With heat extremes on the rise, there is an urgency for schools to adapt and build resilience. 

New Heat Policy Tools for Schools 

To support schools in addressing extreme heat, MAPC partnered with the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards through the Massachusetts Asthma Action Partnership’s (MAAP) Healthy Environments Advance Learning project (HEAL) to develop new template policy language for addressing extreme heat and air quality in schools.  

Recognizing that school policies come in several different forms, we’ve provided three distinct template policies that can be integrated into existing district documents. These include:  

The HEAL school policy templates cover a range of day-to-day processes, from HVAC system maintenance to modifications of school activities based on extreme weather. 

We encourage districts to modify policies based on specific conditions and preferences. The policy templates were developed to be used with the Clearing the Air Toolkit, a tool developed by MAAP and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health that offers a curated list of best practices for creating a healthy learning environment. Sections meant to be customized to fit your district’s needs are clearly noted throughout the templates. 

Heat Policy in Action: Holyoke Public Schools  

Holyoke Public Schools is a leading example of a Massachusetts school district proactively addressing extreme heat in the classroom. This year, Holyoke updated their Guidelines for Extreme Weather, incorporating a robust extreme heat protocol that builds on their pandemic-era guidance around indoor air quality. The 2024 policy reflects best practices for reducing heat stress through a multi-pronged approach addressing key factors like humidity levels, air circulation, classroom temperature thresholds, ensuring hydration for students and staff, and modifying physical activities.  

For indoor environments with limited air conditioning - which are most of Holyoke's schools - the policy provides detailed guidance on how to adjust classroom conditions and activities to keep building occupants safe when temperatures rise. Critically, the policy establishes specific heat index thresholds to trigger modifications to activities and consideration of early dismissal. Longer-term, the policy recommends resilience measures like retrofitting buildings with energy efficient cooling systems and installing more shade structures.  

The innovative policy emerged from a collaborative relationship between Holyoke’s facilities and nursing staff. Their partnership, initially focused on green cleaning and managing influenza spread in the schools, was strengthened during the COVID-19 pandemic as they worked together to keep students and staff safe. This interdepartmental approach is reflected in their heat policy, which considers both building operations and health impacts. 

Holyoke's policy demonstrates local leadership in tackling the intensifying challenge of keeping students cool, comfortable, and learning in our changing climate. Other districts can look to their example when developing customized heat resilience plans using the new HEAL templates as a framework. 

Promoting Cool & Healthy Classrooms 

With extreme heat intensifying, all Massachusetts school districts need a plan to keep classrooms cool and students healthy. According to ResilientMass, the Commonwealth's climate adaptation initiative, the number of extreme heat days is projected to increase from four days per year (the average up to 2000) to 10 to 28 by mid-century.7 The last few summers have seen many districts from across the state forced to cancel school or dismiss students early due to oppressive heat and lack of air conditioning. Without adequate preparation, more intense and frequent heat waves will increasingly disrupt learning environments. 

Examples from Holyoke and the HEAL school policy templates provide a valuable starting point. We encourage districts to review these resources and customize the policies to meet their unique situations. Having defined heat protocols in place is key to promoting resilience amid rising temperatures. 

By putting effective heat policies in place, schools can ensure that even on the hottest days, students have cool and healthy classrooms conducive to learning. 

For more information on implementing the Heat Policy Templates or additional resources from the Clearing the Air Toolkit, please contact Sharon Ron (sron@mapc.org

 

1 Zamorodian, Z.S., Tahsildoost, M., Hafezi, M. (2016). Thermal comfort in educational buildings: A review article. Renewable and Sustainabile Energy Reviews, 59, 895-906.
2 https://www.climatecentral.org/climate-matters/summer-heat-means-stagnant-air
3 Statistics about asthma | Mass.gov
4 Park, R.J., Behrer, A.P., Goodman, J. (2021). Learning is inhibited by heat exposure, both internationally and within the United States. Nature Human Behavior, 5, 19-27;
5 Taylor, L., Samuel, L.W., Marshall, H., Dascombe, B.J., Foster, J. (2016). The impact of different environmental conditions on cognitive function: a focused review. Frontiers in Physiology, 6, 372.
6 Lu W, Hackman DA, Schwartz J. Ambient air pollution associated with lower academic achievement among US children: A nationwide panel study of school districts. Environ Epidemiol. 2021 Nov 3;5(6):e174. doi: 10.1097/EE9.0000000000000174.
7 MEMA and EEA. Chapter 3. Profile of Massachusettsʼ Setting and Climate Projections https://www.mass.gov/doc/resilientmass-plan-chapter-3-profile-of-massachusetts-setting-and-climate-projections/download