IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

40 Pittsburgh Schools Move to Remote Learning Amid Heat Wave

Pittsburgh Public Schools this week rolled out protocols for schools without air conditioning to deal with extreme heat. A day later, 40 facilities shifted to remote learning as local temperatures soared into the 90s.

(TNS) — Just a day after Pittsburgh Public Schools rolled out an extreme heat protocol for schools without air conditioning, the district announced that 40 schools will transition to remote learning as temperatures are expected to spike later this week.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Wayne Walters announced a new Extreme Heat Protocol for schools without sufficient air conditioning systems, which guide heat-related closures and other decisions. By Wednesday, the district said 40 facilities would go to remote learning for the remainder of the week due to hot forecasted temperatures

According to the National Weather Service, temperatures in Pittsburgh may surge up to 90 degrees on Thursday and up to 94 degrees Friday.

Mr. Walters' new protocol guides the district to monitor the temperature inside school facilities when outside temperatures are forecasted for one or more days to exceed 85℉ and/or a heat index of 90℉ or higher, per the National Weather Services. With that monitoring, the district will make a decision on whether to temporarily shift to remote learning.

"Caring for the health, safety, and wellness of our students and staff is multi-faceted, and that is why I have identified the development of safety, health, and wellness protocols as one of five priority goals," Mr. Walters said in a statement. "As we enter the summer months, it was important to establish an extreme heat protocol for our facilities without sufficient air conditioning systems to elevate transparency in our decision-making process and help families and staff plan should there be a need to shift instruction virtually."

Currently, 41 district facilities lack sufficient air conditioning. But it's not just an issue in Pittsburgh.

In the East Allegheny County School District, Superintendent Al Johnson says in their 50-to 60-year-old buildings, only limited spaces have air conditioning. The elementary school is, but the junior and senior high school building is not.

There are zones in that building, including the auditorium, digital learning center and about 20 to 24 second floor classrooms, with window units that provide some air flow and relief from the heat.

When temperatures surge, the district does what it can to keep kids comfortable, such as bringing in fans. Or in the case of Wednesday morning, Mr. Johnson directed food services to make ice water available to students to keep kids hydrated.

If the heat is too excessive, Mr. Johnson said they will transfer students to those air conditioned "zones."

Mr. Johnson wants to create more of these kinds of spaces, including the cafeteria, using money from Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds, which were emergency funds allocated to schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pennsylvania received $523.8 million, and of this amount, $471.4 million was directly allocated to school districts and charter schools.

"You are allowed to use those funds to make capital projects involving your infrastructure if it's something that will help improve the environment and make it a better environment for kids," Mr. Johnson said. "And of course with air conditioning, you also get dehumidification and you get a certain amount of air filtering, which does help reduce the incidence and spread of diseases."

He said Pittsburgh's new protocol is a good precedent for districts when handling summer heat. For now, he says they tend to send students to the cooler spaces when temperatures go past 80 degrees. There's no hard and fast rules, so it is usually guided by feedback from instructors themselves, according to Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson added that one administrator is tasked with monitoring temperatures and humidity on the second floor.

"We're probably guided more by feedback from the staff because the faculty who are there, they know the kids better, they know the room better and when they tell us it's getting too hot, that's usually the trigger point for us," he said. "When they tell us rooms are getting unbearable, then we'll start making moves to try to provide some relief for them."

He said remote learning is a kind of "last resort" as the heat doesn't tend to become an issue until the very end of the school year. But when it comes to the makeshift solutions they have now, he said they don't have enough room for everyone in those air conditioned areas at the moment.

Ultimately, he said the school district needs to have a full air conditioning system installed, believing investing in air conditioning is an investment in kids' health.

He says the issues highlight disparities among school districts, particularly in those that are underfunded.

"East Allegheny is a poverty-stricken district," he said. "The building needs to have full air conditioning installed. We simply don't have funds to be able to do something like that. That's just a really expensive proposition. Financially, we're not in a position to do it right now."

It's an issue schools, particularly those with older buildings, struggle with across the country.

Last August, tens of thousands of students in Philadelphia were sent home early because it became too hot in their un-air-conditioned classrooms. Nearly 60 percent of the schools still lack sufficient cooling systems, according to NPR. Like Pittsburgh, that's partly due to aging infrastructure. Philadelphia school district buildings average around 75 years old, and in most cases, their electrical systems can't support central air.

The district installed 532 air conditioning units across 43 schools this summer, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, but there are still 58 schools in need of upgrades and those projects aren't expected to be completed until 2027.

And last year, teachers in Columbus, Ohio, went on strike over a conflict with the school district regarding overheated classrooms. The union says it was pushing for guaranteed air conditioning, "appropriate class sizes" and full-time art, music and physical education teachers in the city's elementary schools.

Research shows how extreme heat in classrooms impacts kids. A study by Harvard revealed that without air conditioning, each 1°F increase in school temperature reduces the amount learned that year by one percent.

And according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, about half of public school districts need to update or replace multiple building systems or features in their schools. This figure is a "low-point, conservative estimate," the report says.

Educators emphasize this, too. Nearly half of K-12 educators who responded to a 2021 EdWeek Research Center survey said heating and cooling were urgent concerns in their school buildings.

For Mr. Johnson, he says "authentic learning" can't happen when kids are overheated, and air conditioned schools are "healthier schools." He would like to see the state legislators take action and start addressing the problem, rather than leaving it to individual school districts.

"There's not great learning going on when kids and teachers are both sweltering," he said. "That certainly needs to be addressed statewide. It's not fair that kids in poverty-stricken districts should have to be in unhealthy buildings, but that's where we are in a state."

©2023 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.