Outfitting school buildings for extreme heat ‘not that hard,’ says expert

September 14, 2023 – Near-triple-digit temperatures during the first week of the new school year led some districts in the U.S. to ether close or dismiss students early. According to healthy buildings expert Joseph Allen, the extreme heat was “entirely predictable”—and fixing the problem isn’t difficult or expensive.

Even though many of the nation’s school buildings are old and outdated, “it’s not that hard” to retrofit them to better handle the realities of extreme heat and other climate change-related issues, said Allen, associate professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a September 7 interview on the PBS NewsHour. “At a minimum, we have to provide cooling for students, right? That is the simple answer. It’s an obvious fix.”

Heat pumps, which provide both heating and cooling, are a good option—and they’re good for the climate crisis, too, because they’re powered by electricity, noted Allen, who also directs the Healthy Buildings program. “I know school districts that did exactly that, installed heat pumps for each classroom,” he said. “There are even basic things like air conditioning for the window units while these larger replacements that need to take place are happening. I reject the notion that we can’t act because it’s too hard or [takes] too long.”

Schools can pay for upgrades with funds from the American Rescue Plan, passed by Congress during the height of the pandemic to provide economic relief to state and local governments. “The money is there,” he said. “It’s a chance to fix what has been decades of neglect of our school buildings.”

Upgrading HVAC systems in old schools will do more than just keep classrooms cool during extreme heat events—it will also help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, and help mitigate the effects of air pollution and wildfire smoke, Allen said.

Listen to or read Allen’s PBS NewsHour interview: Extreme heat, lack of air conditioning forces some schools to cancel classes