SEATTLE — When the classroom thermometer passes 80 degrees and starts marching toward 90, survival mode kicks in.
During the Seattle area’s May heat wave, teachers grabbed ice pops and sprayed students’ flushed necks with water, urging them to move in front of a fan. Some found refuge under a shady tree outside, and some kids got sick and went home.
With the school year beginning in just over a month, schools are bracing for the possibility of having to do this all over again. Last year, 80-degree days lasted well into October, and meteorologists expect the rest of this summer and beyond to stay warm.
Sweltering classrooms are becoming the norm in Seattle-area school buildings, many of which have no or poor air conditioning systems. It is yet another front in the region’s battle with climate change, which has increased both the degree and frequency of hot days in a region outfitted for milder weather. State law hasn’t yet caught up with the trend, either: there is a minimum temperature for classrooms, which is 65 degrees, but there is not a maximum, nor much guidance on what to do.
In contrast, the state has created new protections for workers exposed to outdoor heat. Rules announced this year require employers to provide cool drinking water, rest periods and opportunities to sit in the shade when temperatures reach 80 degrees or higher.
“We don’t talk about the risk of heat until it hits us. And it gets harder in a high-poverty community when people don’t have a way to escape heat even after school,” said Shannon McCann, a special-education teacher in Federal Way who served as a teachers union president until recently. The union has been collecting stories of extreme temperatures in classrooms and bringing them to the district. A couple of classrooms clocked in at 90 degrees in May, McCann said.
Heat waves have historically fallen outside of the school year calendar, sparing kids and educators from the worst stretches of heat waves. But in the last six or seven years, teachers report a worsening exposure to the elements.
“Obviously, it makes it very difficult for any learning to take place,” said Kelli Perry, a teacher in the Lake Washington School District, the second-largest district in the state by enrollment.
Some school districts try to mitigate the heat by providing fans.
In Federal Way, McCann reports, the district suggested teachers put butcher paper on the windows. But that’s not adequate, she said. The burden of addressing the heat has fallen on teachers and school staff.
“The state should have a plan for all schools in these extreme heat situations,” McCann said.
Installing air conditioning inside schools can prove expensive, and the older the school building, the less likely it is to have AC. A 2020 study from the federal Government Accountability Office found about a third of districts need updates to their HVAC systems.
New and current school construction in Federal Way will have air conditioning, officials said. But “we do not have the funds necessary to go back and install air conditioning units in all the schools built without air conditioning,” Federal Way Public Schools spokesperson Whitney Chiang said.
It is bad timing in terms of school budgeting, too. Districts are reporting financial distress due to falling enrollment, and many are failing to pass the bonds that allow them to raise money to fix issues in their buildings.
In the worst cases, heat can prove dangerous. Alisha Rasmussen, a paraeducator at Glacier View Junior High School in Puyallup, worries about the medically fragile children she works with. High temperatures can trigger seizures in students with certain medical conditions, such as Angelman syndrome. Educators also have to worry about managing their own risk of heat stroke.
A couple of months ago, Rasmussen had to exit a classroom where students had been cooking on a hot day.
“I went and got cold water on my wrists,” she said.
McCann, the Federal Way educator, has talked to a lawmaker and hopes to see a bill in next year’s legislative session that will help districts address heat in school buildings.