School may have just started, but for hundreds of students in the region around the nation’s capital, class is already getting out early. In the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore metro areas, schools are closing or dismissing class hours earlier than usual in response to a staggering heat wave plaguing the East Coast.
Baltimore’s public schools announced on Monday via Twitter that schools without air conditioning would release three hours early on Tuesday, the first day of school. A later tweet extended that decision to Wednesday as well. Approximately 60 school buildings either have “inadequate cooling” or lack air conditioning altogether in the city. An additional 10 schools closed altogether, according to the Baltimore Sun.
That lack of cooling coupled with a blistering heat wave that has seen temperatures well above 90 degrees Fahrenheit has resulted in extreme warmth inside schools. School buildings without proper cooling mechanisms see indoor temperatures of around 85 degrees, to the detriment of students.
“Baltimore City Public Schools has the most outdated building portfolio in the state, including some of the oldest schools and maintenance needs with an estimated cost of $3 billion to address,” read a letter from the school system explaining the decision. “This includes approximately 60 buildings with no air-conditioning or with inadequate systems that require frequent extensive repairs and do not reliably provide adequate building-wide cooling.”
The school system noted that those students dismissed early receive free lunch, mitigating the concern that many would go without food. Additionally, the district is working with the city and the Department of Recreation and Parks to establish spaces for students so they remain occupied during that duration of time.
Baltimore is joined by other area schools. All public schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland will close early Wednesday due to heat concerns. Two schools in the area, which borders Washington, D.C., will shutter altogether for the day: Margaret Brent Regional in New Carrollton and Riverdale Elementary in Riverdale, both of which have air conditioning systems undergoing repairs.
All schools in the county have access to air conditioning, but buildings range in their cooling capacity and the mass-school closure was decided based on transportation assessments. Prince George’s County has said the district will reassess the situation on Thursday before announcing further closures and next steps going forward.
Weather forecasters for the region have issued bleak assessments throughout the week, warning that “a combination of heat and humidity” is likely to persevere into Friday, potentially resulting in “heat index values of around 105 [degrees Fahrenheit] Tuesday through Thursday.”
A Twitter account for the Washington Post’s weather team noted that Tuesday low temperature of 79 degrees was the “highest low temperature so late in the calendar year on record” — a bleak milestone unlikely to hearten area school districts.
Experts have already noted the impact of heat on learning ability. In a study published last May, researchers from Harvard University and the College Board found that prolonged heat exposure appears to hinder “cognitive skill development,” something that can be mitigated by things like air conditioning in classrooms.
According to the study, “hotter school days in the year prior to the [PSAT] test reduce learning, with extreme heat being particularly damaging” to those attempting the assessment. The researchers observed that such studies offer crucial lessons for educators and city planners alike as heat waves become more common with climate change.
“Our estimates imply that the benefits of school air conditioning likely outweigh the costs in most of the US, particularly given future predicted climate change,” the study’s authors noted.
While it’s unclear how cities will shift policies to adapt to warming global temperatures, reactions to the current heat wave have been uniform in a number of areas when it comes to classrooms. Schools hundreds of miles away from Baltimore and Washington are similarly instituting early closures. Cleveland, Akron, and a number of other Ohio school districts canceled classes in some buildings this week, a trend also playing out in New York and Massachusetts.