Are schools ill-prepared as historic heat hits Sacramento?
Delaire Doyle usually keeps the doors to his classroom at Pleasant Grove High School open to fresh air and natural light.
As the temperature soared to an unbearable 106 degrees last Friday, Doyle, an animation and video production teacher, felt sweat dripping down his face and back. He turned off the lights and closed the doors in his classroom, hoping the air conditioning would do its job. But nothing has changed.
“In my class, [the temperature] was so high that the 6th and 7th hours were terrible,” said Doyle.
Saw one in early September historic heat wave Meet 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 to brave the heat.
With climate change leading to longer and more frequent heat waves, researchers and parents say more is needed to equip school buildings and the buildings 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 Monday. Although they said his air conditioning worked, it was the dynamic and structure of the room that kept him hot.
“The air conditioning worked, sadly enough – only my room was still so hot because I have very high ceilings,” he said. “I have so many computers in my room that they also emit heat.”
Just as schools have adjusted to the lingering effects of COVID-19, heat waves in Sacramento have been a not-so-gentle reminder that climate change must be accounted for in the education system. Heat-related illnesses and school interruptions are just some of the concerns that emerged at the start of the school year.
2019, Johns Hopkins published data suggesting that children are much more susceptible to heat-related illnesses than adults. Inequalities in access to cooling systems at school or at home can have a negative impact already vulnerable communitiespotentially widening the performance gap.
Currently, reduced school hours or closure are best practices in Sacramento County for a power outage lasting more than an hour. So far, the Sacramento City Unified and Robla Unified school districts have had closures and reduced hours to protect staff and students in response to the heatwave.
However, these kinds of last-minute adjustments can let parents down.
Amaya Noguera from Natomas has a kindergarten student who is looked after after school. When the air conditioning at the site failed, she was suddenly denied access to childcare during working hours.
“After her kindergarten school, we have to adjust our days to pick her up, figure out who can cancel some meetings, pick her up, bring her home and then be here with her,” Noguera said. “And this can get even more complicated without a trusted support structure.”
Keeping kids at home during the heatwave isn’t always an option, either. According to Eugene Stovall IV, the principal of Matsuyama Elementary School, students can be flagged with an unexcused absence, which is standard district protocol.
It wasn’t just after-school care that led to a sudden shift in pickup schedules. Because buses serving Robla Unified don’t have air conditioning — except for those carrying disabled students — the district has suspended extracurricular transportation until September 9.
“We are doing this to protect our students and transport staff as the heat on the buses could reach dangerously high temperatures,” spokeswoman Heather McGowan wrote in an email. “We have extra staff to help keep students cool and out of the heat until their supervisor arrives to pick them up.”
The Sacramento County Department of Education follows the general guidelines of the California Department of Health and Human Services. These measures include the cancellation or postponement of outdoor and unconditioned indoor activities when the heat risk is too high to ensure student-athletes are not subjected to multiple days of exertion in moderate to high temperatures, and monitoring for heat-related illnesses.
Heat-related illnesses resulting from outdoor activities were a key factor for districts in managing this week’s heat wave.
Elk Grove Unified, Sac City Unified and San Juan Unified have canceled their soccer games for this week, while Natomas Unified has delayed the timing of their games in response to the heatwave. Twin Rivers moved events scheduled between noon and 8 p.m. indoors.
CDPH advises the community to search Signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesswhich include muscle spasms, dizziness, headache, impaired judgment, difficulty speaking and slurred speech.
Sacramento County Public Health spokeswoman Samantha Mott said the county is providing heatwave guidelines to districts.
“We use the CDPH guidelines for schools and youth, especially in youth sports,” Mott said. “It’s pretty simple things: If it’s very, very hot outside, maybe exercise inside, don’t exercise, make sure students and athletes stay hydrated.”
As heat waves continue, researchers and parents want schools to adapt
Heatwaves in California are increasing in frequency: Sacramento is forecast by 2050 experience three multi-day heat waves per yeareach of which is expected to last between 7.6 and 9.1 days Research for the City of Sacramento.
But instead of focusing on mitigation, Sacramento-area districts have been addressing the current heat wave from a crisis response perspective.
Stovall, the school principal in the Pocket area, said he didn’t think people were worried about the long-term effects of the heatwave.
“I think right now people aren’t focusing on the heatwave because it’s only going to be here for a few more days,” he said. “I think people will be more concerned about the smoke as the fire season increases.”
Schools are referred to the Heat Response Plan under the supervision of the Sacramento County Health Department. Several Sacramento County counties said they did not have backup generators, putting them at risk of further school closures and reduced hours during power outages.
“In the future, whether it’s next year or five years, it really just has to be about people having to implement that heat response plan when it hits a certain temperature over an extended period of days,” Mott said.
dr Stephen Miller, a professor in the Department of Human Ecology at UC Davis, said that an afterthought in schools to mitigate heat fits a historical pattern, as “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 artificial grass soccer fields and roofs also absorb heat. “They usually have very little vegetation. I would expect your average school to be five degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the neighborhood around it.”
Miller says this often results in campuses acting as urban “heat islands” — areas with no trees and lots of asphalt, concrete and other hard surfaces that act as “heat sponges” during the day.
There are several cooling mechanisms that can mitigate the heat on school sites, he said: lightening the colors of asphalt and roofs, minimizing asphalt surfaces, and providing shade through the use of building shapes. In 2019, the California Energy Commission began requiring new or replacement roofs meet energy efficient roof standards.
Building improvements aside, Miller says adding a good tree canopy over an entire school is one of the best things schools can do to bring down campus temperatures. But he acknowledged it’s a luxury that’s more readily available in well-funded, better-resourced schools.
“Some wealthier private schools have a lot more budget for landscapes and are a lot greener than schools in places like South Sacramento,” he said.
The southeastern, central, and northeastern regions of Sacramento County are most likely to experience higher average daily temperatures, according to a Map developed by the City of Sacramento in partnership with NASA in 2020.
While some areas in the central region like Land Park have some tree canopy, there are in neighborhoods like the Stockton Corridor in south Sacramento and Del Paso Boulevard in north Sacramento lacks this protection.
The latest from Sacramento Draft of his climate protection plan says the city aims to increase its urban canopy cover to 25% by 2030 and 35% by 2045.
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