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Sweltering classrooms, shortened days: The cost of climate change on schools

Research shows hot classrooms can have negative impacts on learning, but convincing voters air conditioning schools is necessary can be a heavy lift

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Tooele School District HVAC techs Seth Anderson and Dalton Rydalch look over ae chiller unit that broke down at Tooele High.

Tooele School District HVAC techs Seth Anderson and Dalton Rydalch look over the chiller unit that broke down and was repaired at Tooele High School in Tooele on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Students were dismissed from school. Research shows without air conditioning, each 1 degree increase in average school year temperature is associated with a 1% decline in the amount learned during the school year.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Very likely, Julie Taylor never heard of a “heat dome” when she ran for a seat on the school board in Box Elder County a half-decade ago.

But now, the persistent region of high pressure that is trapping record heat over the West and South — the end of a scorching summer as climate change has made the season hotter and longer — has pressed the northern Utah school district into extending the four-hour school schedule it used to start the school year because several of its schools are not air-conditioned.

Since school construction and improvement costs are largely borne by local taxpayers in Utah, school boards carefully select projects covered by school bonding. Sometimes, projects like school air conditioning don’t make the cut.

“It’s hard to pass a bond. Even though people really want air conditioning, when you talk to the community at large, they’re like, ‘Oh, I dealt with it. It’s only for a couple of weeks at the beginning of year and a couple weeks at the end of the year,’” said Taylor, board president.

Box Elder School District Superintendent Steve Carlsen said he’s heard that, too. But that was before the recent forecast of consecutive days of 100 degrees and plus temperatures.

“You have both ends of the spectrum. There’s, ‘Hey, we all did it and we need to toughen up’ and ‘My kids are coming home sick.’

“We do see that there are kids, even on these half days, by noon, some of these kids ... start feeling a little yucky,” Carlsen said.

As the school district replaces buildings, new schools are equipped with cooling systems such as Golden Spike Elementary School in Brigham City, which just opened.

The district has targeted more than $5 million federal COVID-19 relief funding toward installing air conditioning in its intermediate schools, but supply chain issues thwarted plans to install chillers in time for the start of school, Carlsen said. The units are expected to arrive in March, he said.

Moving forward, the district will likely use local funding to equip all of its elementary schools with air conditioning “because it just looks like our world is warmed up and we’re gonna have to have that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the district will observe “minimum days” to help cope with the heat.

Weber School District announced it, too, would move to abbreviated school days on Tuesday and Wednesday because several of its schools do not have cooling systems and record temperatures are forecast.

One of the schools, Roosevelt Elementary School, was built in 1957.

“It’s one of our older schools and one that is really impacted by the heat wave. We had a lot of concerns at that school yesterday,” said Weber District spokesman Lane Findlay.

Duchesne High School, which is undergoing renovations and currently has no air conditioning, will dismiss classes daily at 1 p.m. the second week of school so students and staff are not in classes in the heat of the day.

Tooele School District also dealt with heat-related challenges this past week when the school’s chilling unit broke down and classrooms became excessively hot. 

Classes at Tooele High School were dismissed midmorning on Wednesday. The unit was repaired and school resumed the following day.

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The hallways are empty at Tooele High School after the air conditioning unit broke down at the school on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Students were dismissed from school.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Record summer heat

The National Weather Service announced this week that the Salt Lake City International Airport had reported the warmest meteorological summer on record, which covers the months of June, July and August.

If there’s any saving grace to the record summer heat, it’s that it prepared students and families to weather the hot weather as the school year got underway.

Students in Canyons School District returned to school on Aug. 15, when it was about 90 degrees, said district spokesman Jeff Haney.

“We’ve had several hot days since the first day, as well. As such, our students have been playing at recess and lunch in temperatures that aren’t much different than what we will see in the coming days,” he said.

“We also realize that kids have spent a lot of time in the sun in the past few months. Throughout all of the summer months, children played outside, went to the pool, visited amusement parks and zoos, and camped and hiked when the temperatures were 90 to 100 degrees,” Haney said.

All but one of Canyons District’s schools, Union Middle School, have cooling systems, but it will, too, once it is rebuilt.

Heat’s impact on learning

While the summer heat has helped acclimate students to the conditions as they return to school, research into the impacts of heat on learning raises concerns.

According to a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, cumulative heat exposure over the course of a school year is associated with lower levels of student achievement.

Without air conditioning, each 1 degree increase in average school year temperature is associated with a 1% decline in the amount learned during the school year. For schools with air conditioning, however, the negative effects virtually disappear.

As Carlsen explains, comfortable classroom conditions help ensure effective teaching and learning.

“If they’re in a room that’s 80-plus, it’s pretty hard to learn,” he said.

The research also found that lower-income and minority students are more likely to attend schools that are not air-conditioned.

A 2017 study from Harvard University found that the odds of a student failing a test on a day where temperatures are hotter than 90 degrees was 12% higher than if the test was taken on a 72-degree day.

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Tooele High School officials had to dismiss students from school on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022, due to an air conditioning problem at the Tooele school.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Heat day advisories?

Yándary Zavala Chatwin, spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City School District, said as key administrators discussed the recent spate of high temperatures, some wondered as the impacts of global warming are further realized if Utah schools would be subject to heat day protocols, akin to bad air day protocols observed when outdoor air conditions are unhealthy.

No such protocols exist currently, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Currently, principals make site-based decisions at Salt Lake schools, Chatwin said.

“They’ll check things like the temperature of the playground equipment and make sure the kids all get water before and after a recess. Recesses aren’t too long and typically were fine in the morning. It’s the afternoon time that maybe they might need to adjust a little bit, but we don’t have any formal protocol as of right now,” she said.

Evening chill

Carlsen said the heat also makes it difficult to cool buildings overnight so that buildings with cooling systems can operate optimally when doors open the following morning.

Carlsen grew up in southeast Idaho where nighttime temperatures commonly plunge into the 50s this time of year.

“That’s part of the problem. It’s not just the high but it’s the low during the evening,” Carlsen said. “All that concrete and all that brick that absorbs that heat in and it takes a long time to get it cooled off.”

Doug Perry, spokesman for the Murray City School District, said building maintenance workers are running fans at night to help bring down the core temperatures of its schools.

“We’re glad that we have a three-day weekend ahead of us to get a break,” he said.

Currently, the school district has no long-term plan to deal with the current spate of record temperatures “because this is a fairly unprecedented event — the hottest temperatures on record. But if it’s a permanent trend, our board of education and community will assess and review options,” Perry said.