Stifling Hot Classrooms Are More Than 'Just Uncomfortable'

by Susie b Cross
Scary Mommy and Compassionate Eye Foundation/Robert Daly/OJO Images/Getty

In the ’90s I was teaching at a tiny school in rural Missouri in a town of about 1,200 residents. Except in winter, it was HOT in those classrooms. I am not sure if the high school didn’t have the funds for air-conditioning or if it was less of a priority than new football uniforms—but temperature control consisted of cracking a window and hoping for a zephyr. Though we probably started school close to fall during the five years I was there, I remember my room feeling like it was late June, the hottest part of a choking-on-the-thickness-in-the-air Missouri summer.

The administration knew they were asking teachers and students to perform in untenable circumstances. So they offered up some tricks to help us beat the heat:

1.) Fans! Nothing like schlepping a box fan from home so you can blow stray hairs and hot, oily scalp stink around in an enclosed area.

2.) Water bottles! Students were allowed to bring jugs of water to hydrate. Until the administration decided that all kids are boozers and would fill their bottles with liquor instead of water. If anyone was going to pass out, they preferred it be from heat stroke and not inebriation.

3.) The main/principal’s office! Yep, predictably, the principal’s lair was the only space in the entire building that was arctic. Students and teachers both found excuses to hide out with the secretaries long enough to dry their sticky bodies and breathe. The office *had to be* cool for the printer to work properly. But didn’t the school have to be cool for the students to work properly, too?

Finally, the administration half-assed-ly upped their game. It was called “surrendering and sending students and staff home for the second part of the day.” The respite was welcomed by the students (the ones who had air-conditioning at home, anyway). But weren’t they missing learning opportunities every time the inside heat spiked? That was about three hours of instruction per day, and it could really add up.

I guess it came down to six of one, half-a-dozen of the other. Students weren’t going to learn if they weren’t in school. But, students weren’t going to learn if they were boiled alive in school either.

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I can’t tell you much about the learning happening in the sweltering heat of my classroom—because there wasn’t any learning happening. How could anyone (including me) concentrate when they were suffocating? Students and staff alike were lifeless, salty puddles, and it’s hard to retain information when you’re melting and your rump is suctioned to a desk seat.

I know my personal anecdote may be a tad less than persuasive, but there are actual studies that will tell you the same: stifling heat and learning do not go well together. One such study, conducted over a 14 year period, quantified the relationship between heat exposure and cognitive skill development. According to Goodman et al., excessive classroom temperatures caused a significant drop in the performance of students taking the PSAT. Goodman concluded that “On average, student achievement fell by the equivalent of 1 percent of a year’s worth of learning for each additional degree Fahrenheit in temperature during the year preceding the exam.”

And for low income and minority students? Heat’s negative impact is exacerbated. That one degree affects these students’ academic outcomes three-fold to that of upper income families.

Tulsa University’s Indoor Air Program looked at the problem in a different way. Studying a large southwestern school district, they discovered that students’ math, reading, and science scores increased as temperatures were reduced (from a range of 78 to 67 degrees). Consequently, “proper classroom ventilation and temperature could raise students’ average test scores above state standards.”

Of course, standardized tests (and classroom grades) are not the be-all, end-all indicator of academic success. And I still think that actual teachers (like me!), who collect their own empirical data every day, illustrate best how boiling hot classrooms can quash student learning.

The New York State Union of Teachers (God bless them!) asks educators and parents to share their “heat stories”—and, boy, do they share. A North Rockland teacher talks about classroom temperatures close to the 100° mark. She writes, “The students have been lethargic, sweating profusely and complaining of headaches and stomach issues…On one of the days, we had no water fountain available due to rust issues in the school.”

From a Hyde Park teacher, more of the same: “You could not breathe…I felt dizzy, dry and dehydrated…Students were glazed over [and] papers were wet with sweat and humidity and again no learning was taking place. How can we get these students to succeed [and] learn….”

We understood a long time ago that lacking sleep and poor nutrition could have a negative effect on educational outcomes—isn’t it a no-brainer that sweltering heat could too? Do we really need professional research or even testimonials to prove to us that a “hot environment…[impacts] the brain, with uncomfortable heat diminishing cognitive abilities”?

In the end, boards of education have two options: they can invest in effective cooling equipment —or they can continue to broast our students’ brains. Let’s hope they make the right decision.