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With students back in classrooms, schools work to deal with ongoing heat

In Phoenix, which recorded daily highs at or above 110 F for 31 consecutive days in July, daily heat index is carefully monitored by schools.
Students arrive for their first day of school at Dr. Joaquin Garcia High School in western Lake Worth Beach, Florida on August 10, 2023.
Students arrive for their first day of school at Dr. Joaquin Garcia High School in western Lake Worth Beach, Fla., on Thursday.Greg Lovett / The Palm Beach Post/USA Today Network

Following the hottest July on record, school districts in some of the most sweltering cities in the United States are preparing to start the academic year while working to keep their students cool and ready to learn.

In Florida’s Lee County School District, which welcomed students back Aug. 10 amid record-breaking heat, following strict heat index guidelines helps keep students safe, said Irma Lancaster, director of communications. Heat index is the relative humidity combined with air temperature.

At a heat index of 91 degrees Fahrenheit to 103 F, physical outdoor activity time is cut in half and students are provided with a water break every 10 minutes. At a heat index of 104 F to 125 F, students are moved to cool areas and outdoor events are likely to be rescheduled.

“We don’t like to go off the temperature,” Lancaster said. “We like to go off of what it feels like, because that’s really what our kiddos will be feeling.” 

Phoenix Continues To Suffer Through Its Worst Heat Wave On Record
Yolanda Magana drinks water while taking a break from her work trimming trees in Phoenix, on July 24.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

In Phoenix, which recorded daily highs at or above 110 F for 31 consecutive days in July, daily heat index is also carefully monitored by schools, said Michael Mannelly, chief financial officer of the Phoenix Elementary School District, which opened classrooms during the first week of August.

Under certain heat index conditions, students are restricted from outdoor activity and teachers stay on high alert for signs of heat stress in students. Kelly Turner, an associate professor of urban planning and geography at the University of California Los Angeles said physical movement and unstructured free time are necessary components of learning.  

At Dunbar Elementary School in downtown Phoenix, hot days mean having free time to use the school’s air-conditioned science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics laboratory. The school also offers planned activities, such as dancing, games and more, in its gymnasium on extreme heat days.

“Once it gets hot outside, students choose the activity that suits them best,” said Crystal Famania, a teacher at Dunbar Elementary School. “Having those choices for them and having activities that they enjoy doing is great for us all — it makes the students excited, it makes the teachers excited, and it makes school fun.”

Hot classrooms can be detrimental for both student health and education. One 2020 study published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, covering 12,000 school districts, found that testing conditions above 80 F negatively affected standardized test scores.

Another 2023 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that projected global temperature increases due to climate change could reduce annual academic achievement for students, and even impact their future income.

“If kids don’t feel well or are angry or can’t concentrate, then of course they won’t test well,” Turner said. “Children’s bodies are not the same as adults. They are more vulnerable to extreme heat.”

 For many other school districts, coping with extreme heat can be difficult. Lack of adequate air conditioning is a serious issue, with one 2020 assessment by the Government Accountability Office finding that more than 36,000 schools in the U.S. public school system need to update their  heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. 

In central Louisiana, Rapides Parish School District spent the summer evaluating its HVAC systems to make appropriate repairs for keeping students cool,  Superintendent Jeff Powell said in an interview with NBC affiliate KALB-TV. In July, temperatures in the school district were up to 10 F higher than average, hovering in the high 90s into the 100s.

Many schools across the country have facets that retain heat, Turner said — asphalt-covered schoolyards and artificial turf grass act as heat absorbers that raise the overall air temperature. Many schools are also low-lying, single-story buildings with little to no tree cover or green spaces, she said, and thus provide very little shade for students.

In a policy brief for California lawmakers, Turner and her colleagues outlined several steps schools should take to help adapt to extreme heat, including planting more trees and creating green spaces, implementing indoor air temperature standards and installing shade structures.

 “Extreme heat is our new reality,” she said. “Hot seasons will be longer and more intense, and for many children, school is the only place with air conditioning. It’s something schools are going to have to contend with more and more.”

Nidhi Sharm reported from New York City, and Dana Griffin and Ashlee Trujillo from Washington, D.C.