Heat waves claim more lives than any other natural hazard, and in 11 of the countryâ€™s largest school districts, in addition to countless smaller ones, many schools do not have air-conditioning.
In the Santa Maria-Bonita School District in California, teachers report that classroom temperatures sometimes reach 90 degrees. Thirty percent of the classrooms in the district lack air-conditioning, primarily because they are in old buildings that do not have the electrical capacity to support portable units. It would cost upward of $45 million to install central air in all classrooms. In 2015 the teachersâ€™ union asked the school board for that funding, but the request was denied. Some teachers have resorted to offering sweaty and distracted students small cooling towels purchased with donated funds.
At the other end of the temperature spectrum, cold snaps have left children shivering in schools with malfunctioning boilers and drafty windows that do little to protect them when temperatures dip below zero. Low-income and black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend such poorly maintained schools.
This winter, Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, wrote in a letter to the school systemâ€™s chief executive, Sonja Santelises, that â€śtrying to provide a stable learning environment in these extreme conditions is unfair and inhumane.â€ť Dr. Santelises acknowledged that â€śtoo many of our buildings have outdated heating systems, poor insulation and aging pipes as a result of years of inadequate funding for maintenance and facilities improvements.â€ť
When it comes to earthquakes, we have seen some progress in terms of seismic upgrades for schools in states such as California and Oregon. But many other places lag woefully behind.
In Utah, hundreds of old school buildings with unreinforced masonry lie along or near the Wasatch Fault and could suffer serious damage, including complete collapse, in an earthquake. And in Washington, one in three children attend schools built before seismic construction standards were adopted statewide. The most unsafe schools are largely in poorer districts.
This is another reminder that these issues are not just environmental. They are social justice issues, too.
If we legally require children to attend school, then we should be held accountable for keeping them safe there. We need to see a real investment in our nationâ€™s school infrastructure and emergency planning efforts.