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Heatwaves: How Extreme Heat Impacts Students and Educators

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SCHOOL'S OUT FOR SUMMER

As schools across the region wrap up their academic year and get excited for summer, others are planning for future heatwaves and how to protect students, teachers, and staff from extreme heat. Last summer, when Massachusetts experienced two early heatwaves (defined as 3-days or more over 90 degrees) in June, schools across Massachusetts had to close down or do early release.1 This is because many schools in Massachusetts have little or no air conditioning, either central air or window units, to keep students and teachers safe during high heat days. School buildings may also lack operable windows and window shades, which worsens indoor temperature and ventilation issues. Higher temperatures in school settings can pose a risk to students, staff, and teachers:  

  • Risks to Student, Staff, and Teacher Health: High indoor air temperatures, combined with humidity can lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke in schools. Younger children may be more susceptible to heat illnesses as their bodies are not as good at regulating their temperatures and they rely on adults for adapting behaviors such as drinking more water, moving to cooler spaces, or resting when too hot.2 There have also been tragic cases of heat illnesses and deaths of students participating in outdoor sports during extreme heat events.3  
  • Exacerbates Existing Health Conditions: Persistently hot weather can cause stagnant air, trapping the air pollutants and pollens that exacerbate existing health conditions such as asthma and bronchitis.4 Poorly controlled Asthma can lead to loss of school days and impact long term performance. In Massachusetts, 12.9 % of children have asthma- among the highest rate in the country - and over a third (41%) of children with current asthma have missed school or daycare at least once a year because of their asthma.5 
  • Reduce Academic Performance: Studies have consistently found that exposure to high temperatures impairs cognitive function, learning, and academic performance. Lower classroom temperatures and improved thermal comfort were associated with better performance on standardized exams and assessments of cumulative learning outcomes. In the US, heat’s adverse effect on academic performance was found to be significantly larger for BIPOC students and students in lower-income school districts.6 

Municipalities and school departments are beginning to plan and address extreme heat in schools.  

  • In the City of Boston’s recently released Heat Resilience Plan there are several strategies addressing heat in schools. Boston Public Schools launched an Indoor Air Quality Management Program to deploy sensors to better monitor indoor air quality and temperature in real time. Action 5.5 “Cool Schools” of the plan, aims to “Improve energy efficiency, indoor and outdoor thermal comfort, and outdoor shading in school yards, and promote education about heat resilience”.7 This aligns with BPS’s commitment to increase and improve HVAC systems across the district. 
  • City of Chelsea piloted a white “cool roof” on some of its schools, which helped lower air temperatures by 7- 10 degrees near one elementary school.8 The City has worked with local partners, GreenRoots, and Boston University’s School of Public Health, on C-Heat9 to better understand issues of heat exposure and monitor air quality. Currently, the program is working on a Cool Block project in partnership with the MA Department of Conservation and Recreation to do extensive tree plantings. 
  • Everett Public Schools have supported families in cooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. They used emergency funding from the Barr Foundation’s COVID-Safe Cooling program to distribute personal cooling equipment and utility assistance for families in need, along with education and outreach.10 

Soon to be released Keeping Metro Boston Cool: A Regional Heat Preparedness and Adaptation Plan11 outlines several school-related strategies and actions, including: “Ensure public facilities, schools, and critical community facilities are resilient to extreme heat and provide access to cooling.” The proposed plan recommends that municipalities lead by example in weatherization and energy efficiency to reduce energy costs, and installation of renewable thermal to provide cooling in key facilities including school buildings.  

The first step is to assess school buildings (along with other municipal facilities) and identify priority needs for cooling and other improvements. Many communities have begun to do these types of assessments through their participation in the State’s Green Communities12 program, which focuses on energy use reduction. There is an opportunity to tie these energy conservation measures and retrofits in with other municipal goals such as net zero and greenhouse gas reduction goals, clean energy installations, energy resilience, air quality improvements, green school yards, and staff training. However, school-based projects should be addressed holistically where possible to prevent unintended consequences, for example increasing weatherization to the detriment of ventilation and indoor air quality.13 The ability to leverage funding and financing strategies to meet multiple goals, including addressing indoor heat in schools, will require innovative models that break down the siloed approach that many existing programs fall into.  

While building retrofits will be critical in the medium and long-term, more is also needed to protect students, staff and teachers from extreme heat in school settings in the near-term- whether in the classroom, school yard, or sports field. Municipalities and School Departments can work together to develop heat-health safety guidelines and protocols, train staff and teachers on heat-health safety, and ensure access to cooling and hydration during warmer months. 

Upcoming Programs: 

MAPC has recently started working on a program “Healthy Environments Advance Learning (HEAL): Building Capacity for Resilient Schools in Massachusetts” with the Massachusetts Asthma Action Partnership (MAAP). The program is focused on outlining policy and education activities to reduce exposures to asthma triggers in learning environments, and build on existing resources14 to promote healthy school and childcare settings. This includes the MAAP “Clearing the Air” toolkit which provides best practices for creating a healthy school environment for kids with asthma. 

Over the next 2 years, MAAP partners, including MAPC, will be updating this toolkit to include policy and practice guidance for managing extreme heat in learning environments. The project team will be working with school districts most burdened by asthma and extreme heat to spur learning, leadership, commitment, and collaboration for pilot activities and action on environmental conditions. For more information on MAAP and this work, please visit https://www.maasthma.org/. 

 

1 ‘It’s a really terrible situation’: Boston teachers are recording scorching temperatures inside classrooms June 8th, 2021; Opinion | No school should have to close because of extreme heat - The Washington Post 

2 Zamorodian, Z.S., Tahsildoost, M., Hafezi, M. (2016). Thermal comfort in educational buildings: A review article. Renewable and Sustainabile Energy Reviews, 59, 895-906. 

3 2 High School Coaches Charged with Murder After Student Dies of Heat Stroke (newsweek.com); Op-Ed: High school soccer player's death in heat was preventable - Los Angeles Times (latimes.com) 

4 Climate Central (2019) Summer Heat Means Stagnant Air

5 Statistics about asthma | Mass.gov

6 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;  

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. 

7 Boston Heat Resilience Plan 

8 In Chelsea, cooling an urban heat island one block at a time | WBUR News; Chelsea Public Schools Install White Roofs To Reduce Heat | WBUR News

9 Chelsea and East Boston Heat Study (c-heatproject.org) 

10 COVID-Safe Cooling Strategies – MAPC 

11 Metro Mayors Climate Preparedness Taskforce – MAPC 

12 Green Communities Division | Mass.gov 

13 Zamorodian, Z.S., Tahsildoost, M., Hafezi, M. (2016). Thermal comfort in educational buildings: A review article. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 59, 895-906. 

14 Resources & Tools — The Massachusetts Asthma Action Partnership (maasthma.org)