Enrichment Education

Extreme heat is forcing students out of the classroom

Schools from San Diego to Philadelphia have opted to dismiss classes early or move to virtual learning due to extreme heat and poor school ventilation.
Students walk by fan in school hallway.
The Associated Press/David Mercer

Story at a glance

  • Thousands of schools around the country have insufficient heating, ventilation, and cooling systems.

  • As climate change exacerbates extreme weather events including heatwaves, under-resourced schools are put in a precarious position.

  • Previous research has linked increased heat with poor student performance. 

Not only are schools throughout the country facing challenges thanks to a growing teacher shortage, but rising temperatures due to climate change are now forcing some students in schools without air conditioning out of the classroom

According to the Government Accountability Office, around 36,000 schools nationwide need updated or replaced heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.

This week in Philadelphia, more than 100 schools closed early yesterday and will today, thanks to the heat which is expected to range from the high 80s to early 90s, with temperatures expected to break on Thursday.

All afterschool activities are also canceled for the 118 affected schools, marking a tumultuous start to the school year which officially began Monday. 

In a letter sent to families, officials from the city’s school district explained they reached the conclusion after consulting the organization’s 2022-2023 Extreme Heat Protocols.

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“We are extra vigilant in school buildings that currently have window-based air conditioning units instead of central air conditioning systems that can consistently regulate temperatures in instructional spaces,” the protocol reads. 

“If we expect temperatures inside the school building to reach 90℉ or higher, we then work with the school leader to determine whether a temporary shift to virtual learning is necessary for everyone’s safety. Our goal is to make that decision as early as possible, preferably the day before, to minimize last-minute disruption for our students, families, and staff.” 

Schools were dismissed three hours early, and the call largely affected students who attend class in older buildings not equipped with modern air conditioning. Experts estimate it will take until 2027 for all schools in the city to become fully air-conditioned, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

The move follows early dismissals at nearly two dozen Baltimore City schools without air conditioning on Monday and Tuesday of this week, due to high temperatures in the region, while the sustained heat wave led officials to continue to dismiss students early through Friday. 

On the other side of the country, heat and air conditioning troubles also led to early dismissals in San Diego, a region that today will face an excessive heat warning with temperatures reaching the triple digits. 

Even in regions where heat is not excessively high, lack of air conditioning within schools and rising indoor temperatures resulted in closures and early dismissals. On Monday this week, schools in Cleveland, Ohio held virtual classes for this reason. 

Low-income Americans are at a heightened risk for poor heat-related health outcomes due in part to lower access to air conditioning, a problem that will likely be exacerbated by climate change. Low-income and minority students are also more likely to attend schools that lack air conditioning, and hotter classrooms can impede students’ cognitive capacity, making it harder for them to learn. 

Following the passage of President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, the U.S. Department of Education encouraged schools to use the funds to improve indoor air quality by investing in air conditioning.