To milk a bull


Allow me to be among the first to extend a warm welcome to the summer season. Yes, a “warm” welcome. Pun intended. Summer is a very hot and often humid season. This is not new – Eastern Ontario summers have been hot since anyone alive today can remember – but our understanding of how the heat can impact our minds and bodies is ever-evolving.

All living things on Earth adapt and evolve to their environment over a very long period of time. That’s what gives our bodies their amazing “built in” features that keep us alive. One of our coolest features (another pun intended) is our ability to sweat to cool down. Sweating to cool down is a multi-step process. When we sweat, body heat is transferred to the sweat when it leaves our body. This is why a fan blowing air feels extra cool when you’re sweaty or otherwise wet – the sweat is taking body heat with it as it blows away or evaporates.

Despite its simplicity and usual effectiveness, there are two reasons why sweating is not always the best “human cooling system”. One is that it only works when the warm sweat can leave our body. Air can only hold so much water just like coffee can only hold so much sugar. When air is 100% saturated (what we call “100% humidity”), the air will not absorb any more evaporated water or sweat (no matter how hard it tries!). The result is that sweat gets stuck on our bodies and instead of cooling us off, it feels like a warm bath of horribleness. This is why the higher the humidity goes, the higher the temperature feels even if the temperature is not actually rising.

The other inadequacy of sweating is that kids don’t have the ability to sweat quite as much as adults, despite the fact that children’s bodies produce heat faster than adult bodies. In other words, sweating is far less useful to kids than it is to adults. This is why heat warnings from popular weather services warn that young children should take extra precautions. It’s also noteworthy that adult caregivers may not feel as warm as kids, and may therefore not take kids seriously when they complain about the heat.

To bring this semi-scientific discussion to a sociological conclusion, I ask a simple question: why, in 2023, do schools not have air conditioning? Global temperatures are rising by an average of 0.18 degrees Celsius per decade. This may not seem like a lot, but consider that in an 80 year lifetime, the average daily temperature will rise by almost 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is at current warming rates, but warming rates themselves have more than doubled in the last few decades. A degree-and-a-half? What’s the hype? The hype is that what may not seem like a big deal becomes one when it is compounded decade after decade, and our bodies have no chance of adapting to these new conditions this fast.

Regarding air conditioning in schools, I expect the usual answers. “School is not in session in July and August.” “It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.” “Kids are resilient.” Oh please! Some of the days this past April were getting uncomfortably hot. When my wife and I got married in mid-May of 2022, it was over 30 degrees Celsius and humid.

We had picked May partially to avoid the heat! And we all know that September and October can get very hot. Working in the school system, I can confirm that my shorts come out early May and often stick around until at least early October. School buildings are very hot, and spending money on kids is much less a waste than other government spending.

Let’s not forget about the fact that school buildings – particularly elementary school buildings – are used in the summer. Camps and other forms of childcare run. Community groups can “borrow” the space. And there is a lot of grunt work happening by custodial and administration staff, including the moving of furniture and waxing of floors.

I ask again – WHY, particularly considering that technicians have already visited most schools recently to install ventilation upgrades, have we not considered air conditioning for schools? Every other government building has them, as do most stores (even small ones) and most homes.

Here’s the part that really annoys me: doesn’t it make sense to assume that kids who are overheated and feeling sticky and uncomfortable are bound to learn less effectively? It turns out that we don’t have to assume. When I researched the impacts of excessive heat on student learning, the evidence was very clear – the impacts are huge. Students do worse on tests in heat waves, and their cognitive function is reduced. One study even found that a 1 degree hotter school year causes a 1% drop in student learning for the year. That 1.5 degree global warming doesn’t seem so insignificant now, does it? Students learn incredible foundational knowledge at school. Learning even 1% less of it can affect society perhaps more than we will ever know until it’s too late.

Is it time for schools to get air conditioning? I’ll answer with an analogy. Just as a classic novel teaches us that racism is just as pointless and baseless as it would be “to kill a mockingbird”, I argue that expecting effective learning to be happening in sweltering hot schools is like asking educators “to milk a bull”. Trying to get attention and focus out of uncomfortable students is unfair to both educators and students. School is designed to train and develop young minds and bodies, and if these young minds are uncomfortable at best, and impaired at worst, we are setting ourselves up for failure. I don’t have answers for global warming, but I do know that we need to take responsibility for making sure that kids can learn effectively and beat the heat.


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