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Reviews | No school should close because of extreme heat

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Joseph G. Allen is Associate Professor and Director of the Healthy Buildings Program at Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health. He co-authored “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity.”

The importance of good ventilation in schools for covid-19 is now well understood. But the imperative to improve ventilation in schools goes far beyond preventing the spread of disease. We also need it because of the growing threat of oppressive heat, for which too many schools are unprepared.

In recent weeks, thousands of students have been sent home earlier than expected from schools in Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit because buildings lack air conditioning. It happened in Maynot during the summer months, when heat waves usually arrive.

Two realities are hitting hard and fast: the first is that climate change is bringing more intense heat earlier in the season and on more days throughout the year. The second is that many school buildings in traditionally cooler climates were actually designed to to hold onto Heat.

Consider that in Boston, where I live, the temperature exceeded 90 degrees Fahrenheit an average of 11 times a year between 1971 and 2000. By 2030, that number could reach 40. By 2070, it could reach 90.

Last year was the hottest June ever in Boston, and our students are in school until the week before July. Now consider that nearly half of Boston’s public school buildings used in the summer are not air-conditioned. What is the plan here – to close these schools for June in the coming years? And maybe September too?

If that sounds like a stretch, check out Philadelphia’s actual plan: When it hits 90 degrees in classrooms, the city aims to close half of its schools without air conditioning but keep the other half open. This will only aggravate inequalities in the system simply because of the differential investments in school infrastructure.

And the problem isn’t just missed school days. Heat also has an impact on student performance. A study of high school student performance in New York found that the likelihood of a student failing a test in a temperature above 90 degrees was 12% higher than if the test was taken in a temperature of 72 degrees .

The same author co-authored a study of 10 million college students across the country and found a cumulative effect of heat: test results were even lower when there were three consecutive days of high temperatures. They were also lower when the temperature was higher in the years before the test. Air conditioning in schools “almost entirely offsets” this impact, they found.

The problem is compounded by the fact that in places with traditionally cooler climates, particularly the Northeast and northern Midwest, we have designed our buildings to retain heat. Which is logical. Or rather, it made sense for the climate of the 20th century.

But now it’s playing against us, as I wrote in my book, “Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Boost Performance and Productivity.” These buildings were typically constructed with high thermal mass materials, such as brick and concrete, which help capture and retain heat. A great strategy for the winter but disastrous in the summer. Worse still, when temperatures remain high overnight, the building cannot “dissipate” the heat, so the “indoor heat wave” continues for days after the outdoor one has ended.

It’s not just K-12 schools that face this problem. Many colleges have dorms without air conditioning, but they use the buildings all summer. When it hit 97 degrees in Rhode Island last June, students at Brown University reported trouble sleeping and concentrating. Their experience matches research I helped conduct, which found that students in dorms without air conditioning scored around 10% lower in reaction time and speed at answering simple math questions.

It is feared that air conditioning could contribute to more greenhouse gas emissions, which would aggravate the heat problem. But there are solutions here that we haven’t exploited yet. First and foremost, schools should be part of the “electric everything” movement, with the goal of eliminating the on-site burning of fossil fuels. Heat pumps are in vogue because they can provide electric cooling and heater. And energy recovery ventilation systems allow us to maintain high ventilation rates for infection control while conserving energy to cool and heat the air. At the same time, we must continue our efforts to develop on-site renewable energy production with solar panels and make the electricity grid greener. At this point, using energy for air conditioning would have little environmental cost.

But our response to the climate crisis cannot be ‘no air conditioning in schools’. It would mean keeping children out of school and therefore children not learning. After the last two years of learning loss, can we really afford to lose months at the beginning and end of each school year due to the heat?

The money is there. Billions of dollars allocated to schools for the covid response under the US bailout remain unused. And we know how to solve this problem.

Climate data tells us that next year will be warmer than this year. This sentence will be true for the foreseeable future. Are we ready to let the costs of children’s learning pile up?