With a heat wave bearing down on New England just days into the new school year, school districts across Massachusetts scrambled to keep kids cool amid temperatures that climbed into the 90s, turning un-air-conditioned classrooms into veritable saunas.
A number of large districts across the state, including Worcester, Lowell, and Framingham, announced school cancellations or early dismissals for Thursday and Friday to protect students and staff from the heat. A smaller number of districts, including Springfield, Chicopee, and Westfield, also released students early Wednesday.
“These temperatures make teaching and learning especially difficult in the majority of our buildings that are not air conditioned,” said Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski.
Some districts, however, were prepared for the severe temperatures, having used federal pandemic relief funds to make multimillion dollar investments into their HVAC systems so that fewer classes will be canceled or intolerably hot than in prior years.
Boston school leaders said Wednesday they would not close schools or dismiss students early because air conditioning had been installed in the majority of the district’s schools over the last two years and other measures, such as fans, are in place in the remaining schools.
In Boston, Thursday is the first day of school, while some districts began as early as Aug. 28.
The heat poses health risks to both students and school staff, but also makes learning more difficult. Students tire more quickly, and measures to adapt to the heat, like drinking more water, mean class is more frequently interrupted — either to get water or to go to the bathroom.
The fifth graders in Lori Brockway’s classroom at Framingham’s McCarthy Elementary School began getting headaches and stomach aches. Some were so lethargic they put their heads down on their desks or fell asleep. Wednesday’s heat sent temperatures in the room to what felt like 90 degrees, Brockway said.
”When you go in a sauna, you’re in there for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, you’re not in there for five hours,” said Brockway. “It’s really draining, and you feel unhealthy.”
Brockway eventually moved the students into the hallway, where it was somewhat cooler because there was better airflow. Another teacher moved her students into the air-conditioned cafeteria. Framingham Public Schools announced classes would let out early Thursday, rather than force students and teachers to endure another, perhaps even worse, afternoon.
The heat challenges are likely to only grow as the climate changes, noted Scott Hadland, chief of adolescent and young adult medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children
“We really worry about the physical health of children when the temperature gets above 90 degrees,” Hadland said.
Deb McCarthy, the current vice president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and a former teacher for 25 years in Hull, said the problem is worse at the start of the school year because buildings have been baking in the heat all summer. She said the MTA has filed legislation in the past to require an analysis of classroom temperatures and has been calling on districts to use federal relief funds to make HVAC repairs and improvements.
”We have a Massachusetts general law … that has to do with extreme heat conditions for animals in the car and yet we’re unable to get anything done for our students in the classrooms,” McCarthy said.
Many Massachusetts districts, including Framingham, spent federal COVID relief money on adding air conditioning, but many classrooms still don’t have it. Springfield also spent relief funds on HVAC upgrades, but half of its 60 schools remain without AC. Worcester, another district closing early Thursday, has only 11 fully air-conditioned buildings, out of 45. Six more are partially air-conditioned.
With so many schools still unprotected despite recent investments, district leaders felt they had no choice but to cancel classes. Classroom temperatures in Worcester were as high as 91 degrees Wednesday, said Melissa Verdier, president of the Worcester teachers union.
In older buildings, electrical systems are often not even powerful enough to support window air conditioning units. That’s the case in 10 of Boston’s 13 remaining schools without air conditioning. Installation is under way at three other schools. Thirty-eight BPS schools have central air, and the district spent $9.2 million in relief funds to install 4,000 window units in over 70 schools over the last two years.
This week, Travis Marshall’s 9-year-old daughter will return to Phineas Bates Elementary, one of the Boston schools without air conditioning. Marshall said his kids are used to the challenges that hot summer days can pose.
“It’s a 100-year-old building,” Marshall said. ”It felt like a Herculean task just to get the windows open a couple of years ago with COVID.”
The staff do what they can to keep the kids cool using fans and making sure the students stay hydrated, he said. The Bates also emailed parents, reminding them to make sure their kids bring an extra water bottle and dress appropriately for the heat.
BPS may also limit athletics in response to the heat wave, Superintendent Mary Skipper said Wednesday following a press conference on school preparations; decisions will be announced by the coaching staff Thursday.
Mayor Michelle Wu noted at the press conference that the changing climate’s increasing effect on school days as part of the impetus for her $2 billion-plus school rebuilding plan.
“In addition to all of the efforts at every individual school ... we are also working really hard to just help provide that big picture plan for how we’re going to improve and redo many of the buildings in Boston’s very, very old building stock when it comes to our Boston Public Schools,” Wu said. “This Green New Deal for BPS and facilities affects every part of learning.”
Some BPS parents, though, had more pressing concerns than hot weather on the eve of the new school year.
“It’s not that big of a deal as long as the school buses are running right,” said Alvertis Desravines, the mother of two elementary schoolers, “and they’re not running hours behind.”
Staff writers John Ellement and Maggie Scales contributed reporting.