‘Heat day’ school closures on the rise because the climate crisis is already here

‘Heat day’ school closures on the rise because the climate crisis is already here

The school year has ended in much of the country, with its final weeks bringing closures due to overheated classrooms in some cities—yet more evidence of the impact climate change is already having.

But wait, you may be saying. This isn’t new—I remember heat days when I was young. 

Not this many, you don’t.

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In a stark reminder that climate change is the present as well as the future, the number of days schools are forced to close due to heat has risen dramatically, a Washington Post analysis finds. “Philadelphia averaged four such days in 1970; now the figure is eight. In Baltimore, it went from six to 10; in Denver, from six to 11; and in Cleveland, from one to four. Portland, Oregon, now averages three days over 90, up from one in 1970.”

That’s a lot of school days.

This is not just a climate issue, though. It’s also an inequality issue, because guess which schools don’t have air-conditioning to keep classrooms from overheating. It’s often those with lots of poor students. In Southern areas where it has always been hot, most schools have air-conditioning, but in districts where excessive heat during the school year is becoming more common, air-conditioning is less common, and older school buildings are much less likely to have it.

As the Post’s Laura Meckler and Anna Phillips write, “The suffering is especially acute in cities, which are often significantly warmer than suburbs because of how the built environment amplifies heat—and because racist policies pushed developers to concentrate highways and industry in neighborhoods where people of color lived. Poor and minority neighborhoods that lack trees but have an abundance of pavement, parking lots, large buildings, and other heat-absorbing surfaces bear the brunt.”

According to a Government Accountability Office study, “an estimated 41% of districts need to update or replace heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in at least half of their schools, representing about 36,000 schools nationwide that need HVAC updates.”

On May 31, Philadelphia city council member Helen Gym connected the dots on the several issues colliding to force her city’s schools to close early:

We’re weeks away from the end of the school year and we can expect these high temps in late summer and fall when school returns. This is only going to become more common. If we’re serious about solving this health crisis, we need a long term climate strategy for the District.

— Helen Gym (@HelenGymAtLarge) May 31, 2022

We can’t treat these extreme heat waves in isolated, ad hoc ways. Temps vary as much as 20° across neighborhoods. Extreme temps trigger asthma attacks, which disproportionately affect Black children. This is a matter of equity as much as it is about health.

— Helen Gym (@HelenGymAtLarge) May 31, 2022

We need a District-wide assessment of what teachers are dealing with in their classrooms, including average temps and how well the systems we have are actually working — so that we can be prepared for these crises, rather than simply responding in the moment.

— Helen Gym (@HelenGymAtLarge) May 31, 2022

When nearly 40% of our schools are 90+ years old, our facilities are simply unable to deliver the safe conditions kids need to learn. It’s why climate weatherization must be centered in the Facilities Master Plan and why we must fight for every dollar our schools are owed.

— Helen Gym (@HelenGymAtLarge) May 31, 2022

Gym when on to call for a Green New Deal for Philly Schools. But it’s not just Philadelphia facing these issues, and this needs more than a city-by-city response. It needs a broader understanding that the climate emergency is already here, and an all-of-the-above response that treats this as a climate issue, an education issue, an infrastructure issue, and an inequality issue.

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