The late-summer heat wave that blanketed a large portion of the country this week prompted several schools to cancel classes or send students home early, underscoring how ill-prepared many districts are to cope with extreme weather events that have become more common.
In Des Moines, school bus drivers received medical aid at the end of sweltering shifts. Chicago teachers were told to turn off overhead lights and draw shades to keep classrooms bearable. A marching band instructor outfitted students with water backpacks to prevent them from passing out from the heat — at 7:30 a.m.
The scorching temperatures and high humidity that dogged millions of Americans from the upper Midwest to the Southeast added to the challenges of the first days of the new school year. It was a stark reminder, education experts and parents said, of the urgent need to make schools more resilient to climate change.
“We can’t be sending students and educators into a sauna and expect them to learn,” said Karen White, the deputy executive director at the National Education Association. “As the climate continues to change and warm, we have to modernize school buildings or we are putting students in danger.”
On Wednesday, the first day of the school year for students in Des Moines, the temperature rose to 100 degrees, a record high. Only five of the public school district’s 130 buses have air conditioning, which made the ride home miserable for many students, said Phil Roeder, director of communications for the school district.
By the end of the day, Mr. Roeder said 15 drivers were treated for signs of heat exhaustion, including one who was taken to the hospital.
In Concordia, Mo., Jessica Gieselman was alarmed when her 6-year-old son, Wesley, arrived home drenched in sweat on Tuesday, the first day of school. Wesley, who has asthma, gets off on the third stop on his route and usually spends no more than 30 minutes on the bus.
“My worry was how hot and stuffy it is on that bus for my asthmatic son to be sitting there,” said Ms. Gieselman, who posted a short video on Facebook of her son looking weary as he walked in the door. She and her husband made arrangements to drive Wesley home from school the remainder of the week, during which highs reached into the triple digits, even though it’s inconvenient because they both work. “It would be nice if we had air conditioning on the buses, but I know that that’s expensive,” Ms. Gieselman said.
Molly McGee Hewitt, the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, said districts in parts of the country unaccustomed to extreme heat during months when school is in session had been slow to make necessary infrastructure investments.
“Where they may have considered air conditioning a frill in the past, there’s a realization it’s becoming a necessity,” she said. “It’s going to be a huge investment, and it’s not something that can happen overnight.”
In 2020, the Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency, found that roughly 41 percent of school districts had deficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems in at least half of their schools.
Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic prompted school districts to make major investments to upgrade air filtration systems. But many schools have been slow to install or upgrade air conditioning systems.
At Marshall Elementary School in Dubuque, Iowa, officials cut the school day short by two hours on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as the temperature hovered in the 90s. The principal, Joe Maloney, said his staff worked hard to ensure students had water bottles handy and moved slowly through the day.
Toward the end of the school day on Thursday, he encountered a couple of students in the lunchroom who looked exhausted. “It looked like they were almost melting into the floor,” he said.
Daniel Krumm, a drum instructor at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, said he and his peers around the country had come up with new protocols to keep band members safe on scorching days. Each student is issued backpacks with hydration packs and there are constant reminders to sip throughout practice, he said.
“We find that students, especially at the high school age, have a real desire to find their limit, and they’re willing to push really hard, even when it’s difficult,” Mr. Krumm said.
Shannon McCann, a special-education teacher in Federal Way, Wash., said she and her colleagues struggled to keep students safe during a heat wave last May. Teachers bought water bottles to make sure students were hydrated. Some turned classroom lights off and blasted fans.
But Ms. McCann, who has been teaching for 11 years, said those measures weren’t enough. Some students went to the nurse to get ice packs. Others were sent home with heat-induced migraines and bloody noses, she said.
“The heat and our underfunded schools and outdated infrastructure are really putting kids and educators at risk,” she said.
Joseph G. Allen, a professor at Harvard University who heads the Harvard Healthy Buildings Program, said that schools that fail to make facilities more adaptable to climate change would pay a price in student learning. Professor Allen said this problem was exacerbating inequities in the public education system because schools in less-affluent communities had been slower to make the required investments.
“It’s irresponsible that we haven’t allocated the resources to make our schools more resilient to these threats,” he said.