The hot, hot summer of 2023 ended with yet another unnerving heat record: September hit even higher highs across the globe that one climate scientist referred to as “absolutely gobsmackingly bananas.”
Not only do historically Black neighborhoods tend to be hotter than other areas in the same cities, but schools with more Black and minority students tend to have less shade, too. One study of Saint Louis schools found that the more students at a school that qualify for free lunch, the less shade there is in the schoolyard (and this is a district that is about 75% Black).
And with September marking the end of back-to-school season in the United States, the continued heatwaves meant that plenty of students went back for the “fall” semester to playgrounds and sports fields and other outdoor spaces that were dangerously overheated — particularly in redlined neighborhoods that even now still have fewer trees and more concrete.
As playgrounds tip toward being dangerously hot, schools are working to cool them by adding new infrastructure like trees and shade structures — the latter of which a new law signed earlier this month by California Governor Gavin Newsom will make more affordable to install.
The law addresses a construction regulation that can take a seemingly simple, cheap shade structure and turn it into a six-figure, year-long construction project. The high costs come from the state’s very good (but strict) accessibility requirements, which necessitate making any area added to an existing facility accessible to people with disabilities — and the necessary paths and other paving projects required under that law can get expensive.
What SB 515 does is cap accessibility costs at 20% of the overall budget for a school shade structure (it applied to free-standing, open-sided structures, not the shade sails that are also popular on playgrounds).
In a Los Angeles Times op-ed written last year (which led state Senator Henry Stern to write the bill), Nick Melvoin, vice president of the LAUSD Board of Education, detailed how much changing the building regulations could potentially save: “Rough calculations suggest that with the current regulations, building shade structures to cover a portion of each elementary school playground would cost around $75 million. If we could reform the regulations, we could cut that cost in half.”
Additionally, there is $120 million in new funding from CAL FIRE, the state fire agency, for adding new trees and other green infrastructure to school yards.
By capping the costs, the bill could also help counteract the way school funding tied to local taxes entrenches existing racial inequities. A recent CBS News analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics found that majority-Black districts get less money for capital projects — including infrastructure projects that could help school campuses counteract climate change.
The analysis found school districts that are at least 80% Black invest about half as much money in their buildings as districts with barely any Black students. And, those majority Black districts get only a quarter of the money that majority white districts get.
But the thing about extreme heat is it doesn’t care what zip code you live in.
The western San Fernando Valley, where SB 515 author Stern’s district lies, is a notoriously hot part of Southern California (and is also a predominately white suburban area). Stern said that the need for more shade was apparent in his own family.
“I have a 2-year-old who has to walk on 140-degree asphalt and, at the time I was writing this bill, my wife was pregnant, and we’re living in Van Nuys,” Stern told the Los Angeles Daily News. “So this is self-interested in the sense that this is intolerable and a direct health crisis in my own house, and it is a crisis for millions of other people, too.”