This post was originally published on Sacramento Observer

By Srishti Prabha and Janelle Salanga 

Delaire Doyle usually keeps the doors to his Pleasant Grove High School classroom open for fresh air and natural light. 

When the temperature rose to an unbearable 106 degrees last Friday, Doyle, an animation and video production teacher, felt the sweat drip down his face and back. He turned off the lights and closed the doors in his classroom hoping the air conditioner would work its magic. But nothing changed.  

“In my class, [the temperature] was so high that 6th and 7th period was terrible,” Doyle said. 

The start of September has seen a historic heat wave hitting Sacramento County and the rest of California. In response to the hundred-degree weather, Sacramento area schools are moving outdoor activities indoors, shortening days and urging staff and students to stay hydrated in order to beat the heat. 

Just as schools adjusted to the lasting impacts of COVID-19, heat waves in Sacramento were a not-so-gentle reminder that climate change needs to be accounted for in the education system.

With climate change resulting in longer and more common heat waves, researchers and parents say more is needed to equip school buildings and those within them to keep communities safe and cool during the hot season.

Doyle said he reported the issue and the district was at his door on Monday. Though they said his AC was working, it was the dynamics and structure of the room that was keeping it hot.

“The air conditioner was working, sad enough — it was just my room was still so hot because I have very high ceilings,” he said. “I have so many computers in my room that they’re giving off heat as well.”

Just as schools adjusted to the lasting impacts of COVID-19, heat waves in Sacramento were a not-so-gentle reminder that climate change needs to be accounted for in the education system. Heat-related illness and academic disruptions are a few of the concerns that have revealed themselves early in the school year. 

In 2019, Johns Hopkins released data indicating that children are much more susceptible to heat-related illnesses than adults. Disparities in access to cooling systems at school or at home can negatively impact already vulnerable communities, potentially widening the achievement gap.

Currently, best practices in Sacramento County for a power outage that lasts more than an hour are reduced school hours or closure. So far, Sacramento City Unified and Robla Elementary school districts had closures and reduced hours in response to the heat wave in order to protect staff and students.

However, these types of last-minute adjustments can leave parents in the lurch. 

Amaya Noguera of Natomas has a kindergarten student who attends after-school care. When the AC went down at the site, she was suddenly deprived of her access to childcare during work hours.

“After her kindergarten school, we have to adjust our days to go pick her up, figure out who can cancel some meetings, pick her up, bring her home, and then be with her here,” said Noguera. “And this can be even more complicated with no familiar structure for support.”

Keeping kids at home during the heat wave is not always an option either. Students can be marked with an unexcused absence, which is standard district protocol, according to Eugene Stovall IV, the principal at Matsuyama Elementary School. 

It wasn’t just after-school care that created a sudden shift in pick-up plans. Because buses servicing Robla do not have air conditioning — with the exception of those transporting disabled students — the district suspended after-school transportation through Sep. 9. 

“We are doing this to keep our students and transportation staff safe, as the heat inside the buses could reach dangerously high temperatures,” spokesperson Heather McGowan wrote in an email. “We have additional staff to assist with keeping students cool and out of the heat until their caregiver arrives to pick them up.” 

Sacramento County Office of Education is following the general guidelines from the California Department of Public Health. Those measures include canceling or rescheduling outdoor and unconditioned indoor activities when the heat risk is too high, ensuring that student-athletes are not exposed to multiple days of exertion in the mid-to-high temperatures, and monitoring for heat-related illness.

Heat-related illness as a consequence of outdoor activities was an important consideration for districts in addressing this week’s heat wave. 

Elk Grove Unified, Sac City Unified and San Juan Unified canceled their football games for the week, while Natomas Unified shifted the timing of their games in response to the heat wave. Twin Rivers moved events scheduled between noon to 8 p.m. indoors.

CDPH advises the community to look for signs and symptoms of heat-related illness, which include muscle cramping, dizziness, headache, impaired judgment, difficulty speaking and slurred speech.

Sacramento County Public Health spokesperson Samantha Mott said the county is providing districts with heat wave guidelines.

“We’re utilizing the CDPH guidelines for schools and youth, particularly around youth sports,” Mott said. “It’s pretty basic stuff: When it’s very, very hot outside, maybe take practice inside, don’t run drills, make sure students and athletes are staying hydrated.”

With heat waves here to stay, researchers and parents want to see schools adjust

California heat waves are increasing in frequency: By 2050, Sacramento is projected to experience three multi-day heat waves per year, each projected to last between 7.6 to 9.1 days, according to research done for the city of Sacramento

But instead of focusing on mitigation, districts in the Sacramento area have been addressing the current heat wave from a crisis-response perspective. 

Stovall, the principal in the Pocket neighborhood, said he doesn’t think people are concerned with the heat wave’s long-term impacts.

There are several cooling mechanisms that can mitigate the heat at school sites, he said: lighter colors of asphalt and rooftops, minimizing asphalt surfaces and providing shade through using building form.

“I think right now people aren’t looking to focus on the heat wave because it’s only going to be here for a few more days,” he said. “I think people are going to be more concerned about smoke as the fire season begins to ramp up”

Schools are directed to the heat-response plan under the supervision of the Sacramento County Public Health Department. Several districts in Sacramento County said they did not have backup generators, placing them at risk of further school closures and shortened hours in instances of a power outage. 

 “In the future, whether that’s next year or five years from now, what’ll really have to happen is just that people have to implement that heat response plan whenever it hits a certain temperature for an extended period of days,” Mott said. 

Dr. Stephen Miller, a professor at the UC Davis department of human ecology, said an after-the-fact approach at schools to mitigating heat fits a historical pattern since “schools are often built as cheaply as possible.”

“Schools often have a lot of asphalt around them: parking lots, playgrounds, tennis courts, basketball courts,” he said, noting that astroturf football fields and rooftops also absorb heat. “They usually have very little vegetation. I would expect your average school would be five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the neighborhood around it.” 

Miller says that often leads to campuses functioning as urban “heat islands” — areas that lack trees and have plenty of asphalt, concrete and other hard surfaces, which act as “sponges for heat during the day.” 

There are several cooling mechanisms that can mitigate the heat at school sites, he said: lighter colors of asphalt and rooftops, minimizing asphalt surfaces and providing shade through using building form. In 2019, the California Energy Commission began requiring new or replacement roofs to fit energy-efficient roof standards.

Aside from building improvements, Miller says adding a good tree canopy over an entire school is one of the best things schools can do to reduce temperatures on campus. But he acknowledged that it’s a luxury more accessible at well-funded, better-resourced schools. “Some wealthier private schools have much more budget to spend on landscapes and are much greener than schools in places like south Sacramento,” he said. 

The southeast, central and northeast regions of Sacramento County are most likely to experience higher average daytime temperatures, according to a map developed by the city of Sacramento in partnership with NASA in 2020. 

However, while a number of areas in the central region like Land Park have some tree canopy, neighborhoods like the Stockton Corridor in south Sacramento and Del Paso Boulevard in north Sacramento lack that protection

Sacramento’s latest draft of its climate action plan says the city aims to increase its urban tree canopy cover to 25% by 2030 and 35% by 2045.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Srishti Prabha is a Report For America Corp Member and an Education Reporter for CapRadio News and The Sacramento Observer.

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