After the hottest June in Boston history, the school district will reopen multiple schools for summer learning Tuesday without air conditioning to cool the students seeking to catch up after a year of mostly remote learning.
Only 29 of the 63 buildings have air conditioning, leaving the rest to resort to other methods to keep classrooms cool, including turning off overhead lights, opening windows, and using fans and blinds. The high on Tuesday is forecast to be above 90 degrees.
The most significant risk to children in hot classrooms — especially those wearing masks — is dehydration, medical experts say. Older children tend to be better at noticing and communicating when they need a water break, but educators should pay special attention to younger students. Signs of dehydration can include trouble focusing, a headache, or nausea, said Lauren Rice, chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Tufts Medical Center.
It’s important to be mindful, she said, especially this time of year, “that our environment can certainly impact our ability to learn overall.”
About 80 of the 126 summer learning programs operating under the Boston Public Schools umbrella this year will be in traditional classroom settings, according to the district.
To prepare for the heat, the district has distributed 600 to 800 fans to ensure that all schools without HVAC systems have two fans in each classroom.
State regulations mandate that rooms occupied by students are no less than 68 degrees and no more than the outside temperature when it is above 80 degrees outdoors. BPS does not have a specific temperature threshold for calling “heat days” — canceling or postponing programming because of the heat — but works with city leaders to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Canceling summer school on extreme heat days also could place a burden on families in need of quality child care and on students who are trying to catch up after nearly a full year of remote-only learning.
There are 11,721 students enrolled for a BPS summer program and another 461 students waitlisted for their program of choice — down from 13,498 in 2020 but up from 9,766 in 2019. The majority of the BPS-operated summer learning programs already are at or near capacity, according to the district.
Geralde Gabeau, founder of the Immigrant Family Services Institute, partners with Boston Public Schools to run a summer academic and enrichment academy for immigrant students of all ages. Gabeau’s program, which has doubled from around 200 students in 2019 to about 400 this summer, is at Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale and does not have air conditioning. Her team has collaborated with health care and public health advisers, she said, to brainstorm plans for keeping children safe and comfortable that include bringing coolers of water, strategically moving classroom furniture, and asking children to wear light clothing.
But, she said, “It is going to be a challenge, especially with everything that’s happening already.”
“Everything,” as Gabeau puts it, is a nod to the unprecedented academic year that students just completed, a year filled with remote learning, social distancing, and mask-wearing, even on hot days.
State guidance does not require — but encourages — mask-wearing during summer programs, yet Boston Public Schools will require all students and staff to wear masks inside district buildings at all times, regardless of their vaccination status.
The requirement could make the heat even more intolerable for children.
District leaders also are encouraging summer program organizers to limit outdoor activities, schedule cool-down breaks for students, and find time to distance students so they can safely remove their masks.
In the past year, all HVAC systems in the district have been serviced, including the replacement and upgrade of filters, but no full HVAC systems have been added to schools that did not previously have them.
HVAC systems are among the backlogged maintenance work that needs decades of annual investments to fix and “approaches the billions of dollars just for repairs,” said Will Austin, chief executive of Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit whose mission is to advance educational equity in Boston. As an educator 20 years ago, Austin said school buildings had the same issues that remain unresolved.
“I taught summer school at [Boston] Latin Academy in 2001, and I’ve never been hotter in my life,” he said. “It’s not reasonable to think kids can learn in that environment.”
Boston is expected to receive a significant influx of cash in federal pandemic relief funds, and if allocated wisely, Austin said, the district could make changes in schools to benefit students who haven’t even been born yet. But those changes would require a “multiyear maintenance and repair plan” that goes beyond just HVAC systems, he said.
Efforts to prepare public schools for a changing climate also are being debated in the nation’s capital. Senator Edward Markey and Representative Jamaal Bowman filed a bill at the end of June that would award grants for schools to “plan and implement resiliency projects,” including air conditioning and air monitoring, according to a statement from Markey’s office.
In the meantime, program organizers such as Gabeau say they’re just being as flexible as they can to make sure students have a good experience.
“The reason I’m doing this summer is because I do know the impact of COVID-19 on families, so if we are not there for them, especially immigrant families, the students are going to fall way, way more behind than where they are already at,” said Gabeau. “So that’s why we want to do this no matter what.”