Climate change is making the new school year harder in all kinds of ways

Studies find a link between higher temperatures and lower test scores, but that's only part of the problem

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 28, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

Teenage boy sleeping in the library (Getty Images/Mayur Kakade)
Teenage boy sleeping in the library (Getty Images/Mayur Kakade)

We drove slowly down the congested street toward my daughter's new dorm last week, past the throng of local high school students ambling toward their first day of the academic year. It was a sunny, warm California morning. By midday, the temperature would rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. The next day, it would hit 109°F. The forecast for Houston today is near 100°. For Las Vegas, 101°. For Phoenix, 102°, with a "real feel" of 108°. For New Orleans, it's only 85° — with heavy rain. Across the country this month, accelerating climate change has meant that students from kindergarten to college are returning to school in some of the most extreme weather on record. Who can think, let alone learn, in conditions like that?

As a northeasterner, I've long associated back to school with the cooler, brisker days of pumpkin spice season. I knew college would be a different experience for my west coast-bound daughter. Yet I hadn't considered just how different until we walked around her campus that first day, where a handful of students who were outside braving the weather staggered around like zombies. The buildings were all generously air conditioned, but just getting around felt like an endurance test, one designed to sap energy and concentration.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

We've known for a long time that heat is brutal on the body.

"In extreme heat, the body goes into shock," says Rosmy Barrios, MD, a medical advisor for Health Reporter and a regenerative medicine specialist. "Both students and teachers may feel dizzy and irritable. This is due to increased blood flow to dilated blood vessels and fluid loss due to intense sweating."

"In such conditions, it is difficult to learn and concentrate."

"When the body's internal temperature rises above the normal limit," she continues, "you start to sweat more and more intensively, dizziness increases, and you feel extreme fatigue. The symptoms resemble a fever, and almost everyone who has experienced it knows that mental work can be impossible in such a state."

Heat also affects your mind in all kinds of unique ways. A 2018 study reported in Frontiers in Physiology notes higher temperatures appear to lead to slower reaction times, and diminished attention and retention. As far back as as 2003, the International Journal of Hyperthermia was looking at "the effects of heat stress on cognitive performance" in the workplace, and reporting that while "simple tasks are less vulnerable to heat stress," more complex ones, "such as vigilance, tracking and multiple tasks" — you know, like the functions involved in learning — "show signs of performance decrement."

And, in case you missed that 2017 issue of the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that covered "the effects of summer heat on academic achievement," other research shows a measurable downtick in math and English test scores on days above 93 degrees, against scores on days ten degrees cooler. As Joe Allen, director of the Harvard Healthy Buildings Program, told NPR in 2018, "There's evidence that our brains are susceptible to temperature abnormalities. It's a little bit akin to the frog in the boiling water… a slow, steady — largely imperceptible — rise in temperature, and you don't realize it's having an impact on you."

Working indoors in cooler environments helps ameliorate some of the problems, of course, but the physiological effects of heat don't immediately disappear the moment a student walks into some full blast AC. And for those don't have that luxury, the heat can profoundly affect academic performance. Unsurprisingly, it's lower income kids and Black and Hispanic kids who bear the worst consequences.

Indeed, after a global 2020 study in Nature Human Behavior found a correlation between higher temperatures and lower test scores, the authors noted another finding — a profound racial gap in whose scores were affected. Researcher R. Jisung Park told the New York Times that the results "seemed to reflect the fact that minority students are less likely to have air-conditioning at school and at home... causing a gradual and cumulative toll on those students' ability to absorb their lessons." Writing for Grist last year, Nathanael Johnson reported that "Most school districts need major building-system repairs, like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning updates. Some of those are schools... that have never had air conditioning before."

Climate change poses other serious potential hazards to education, if you're willing to connect the dots. The Association for Psychological Science warns of a link between rising temperatures and violence. It estimates that each 1 degree Celsius increase in average temperature (roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit) "a fairly conservative estimate of climate change in the following decades — will likely yield a 6% increase in violent crime rates." The United Nations further warns that because of factors like displacement, girls and women will bear the brunt of that violence. And after you've spent a day driving around in a California town where there's a wildfire warning and a flooding warning at the same time (because climate change isn't just about heat), you understand intimately the threat of abrupt evacuation that a growing number of us face. Worried about school safety now? Anybody think turning up the temperature will make it better?

Climate change is also eroding our sleep cycles, which is terrible for everyone but affects students uniquely, accounting in some studies for nearly 25% of the variation in academic performance.

"45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning."

Then there's the omnipresent and very real anxiety our kids feel about this overheated planet we're leaving them. A 2021 Lancet study of 10,000 children and young people around the world found that "59% were very or extremely worried" about climate change and "45% of respondents said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning."

"They know, and they're angry," says Heather White, activist and founder of the nonprofit One Green Thing and author of the book of the same name. "They feel abandoned, for lack of better word. And they're understandably worried."

What can we do? Tim Mohin, who has worked with the Senate and Environmental Protection Agency on policies like the Clean Air Act and is now the chief sustainability officer for Persefoni AI says that schools need to adjust to the reality of climate in much the same way that have to the threat of shootings. "Why are we starting school in August?" he asks. The heat isn't just about class time and test taking either, he notes, citing the new challenges of maintaining school athletics in untenable weather. We're beginning to recognize that changing the hour school starts could help our kids have a better educational experience; it's time to do the same with the school calendar.

We can invest in realistic initiatives to cool things down. "There are some interesting studies that having trees in urban areas can actually reduce temperature by nine degrees Fahrenheit," says Heather White. "Supporting urban forests and urban parks is really important. Climate change is a public health issue. And it's a children's health issue. We need to have these these options in order to create safer places for students to learn."

If we want our kids of all ages to have a positive school experience — one that includes being well rested, being as free from anxiety and the threat of violence as possible, being able to play sports, and simply being able to concentrate and remember — we have to acknowledge the role of climate change in all of those things. Getting an education is hard enough; extreme weather is only making it that much harder. In my daughter's college town, she's currently finishing her first week of classes. And she tells me it's "only" going to be 99 degrees Fahrenheit today.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Back To School Climate Change Education Explainer