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Rising temperatures leave Oregon schools grappling with excessive heat

Students and their supporters march to demand action on climate change at Portland City Hall on Friday, May 20, 2022. School administrators across Oregon have been struggling to deal with increasingly hot conditions inside school buildings.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Students and their supporters march to demand action on climate change at Portland City Hall on Friday, May 20, 2022. School administrators across Oregon have been struggling to deal with increasingly hot conditions inside school buildings.

Recent hot weather and Oregon’s old school buildings led to an uncomfortable start to the year in many places. Wildfire smoke can add to the discomfort. Here's a look at how schools are responding.

At the beginning of September, temperatures recorded by teachers in one Portland middle school reached 100 degrees, with a heat index of 124 degrees.

Another middle school hit 90 degrees, with a heat index of 106. At one Portland high school, it was 95 inside, with a heat index of 99.

“We received reports of students and staff having heat related illnesses this past week, including a student throwing up until they passed out, and having a serious medical situation,” said Portland Association of Teachers vice president Jacque Dixon at a PPS board meeting Sept. 6.

Dixon said teacher representatives reported 90-degree temperatures “at most schools.”

But it’s not just in Portland. And it’s not a new problem.

As temperatures rise due to climate change, schools have started facing a new back-to-school challenge: how to keep schools comfortable and safe for staff and students. According to data received by OPB, since Aug. 24, Oregon OSHA has received multiple complaints about hazardous conditions at schools. Many of them involved heat stress at schools, or staff and students lacking access to cold water. OSHA received complaints regarding Portland, Beaverton, Corbett, Eugene, Roseburg, Springfield and Greater Albany school districts.

Complainants describe staff bringing in their own window units from home to cool classrooms. They documented students and staff feeling faint, and they complained that schools lacked functioning windows to increase airflow.

Other complaints relate to other potential impacts to working conditions, including construction activity and student behavior.

Last May, the state approved a new rule requiring heat illness prevention training for employees. There is an “exception for buildings with mechanical ventilation that keeps the indoor heat index less than 80 degrees Fahrenheit,” according to OSHA, which could mean school districts may not require the training.

But officials in Beaverton, Three Rivers and Roseburg said employees are required to complete training related to heat illness prevention.

At least one of the complaints related to Portland Public Schools came from the teachers union, said Portland Association of Teachers President Angela Bonilla. And the heat problems are not just based at one school.

“It’s everywhere,” Bonilla said. “If you see a brick building, there’s a good chance it’s overheated.”

Bonilla said the union and the district are working to find long-term solutions.

“We know that this is not just going to happen in August, it’s going to happen in May and June…we want to have a plan,” Bonilla said.

But even temporary solutions for relief from the heat – such as fans and access to water – remain an issue.

During a walk-through at Ida B. Wells High School in Southwest Portland, Bonilla said she saw seven water coolers serving the entire campus, which last year enrolled almost 1,700 students.

Bonilla noted that she’s heard from teachers that excessive heat impacts specific student groups, including medically fragile students who are vulnerable to heat, and Muslim students who wear hijab.

The district has an extreme heat plan, but Bonilla said making sure employees complete heat illness prevention training has not been a prioritized by the district.

Portland Public Schools administrators didn’t respond to a request for comment by late Friday.

Heat solutions for schools from across Oregon

Other districts have taken measures to respond to OSHA complaints and the broader difficulties of cooling off students and staff in hot school buildings.

In Beaverton, a complaint was filed involving Tumwater Middle School, alleging temperatures were “86-90″ at the end of August, and that an employee fainted from the heat.

After investigating the complaint and talking to school administrators, the district does not believe an employee fainted. However, the district said it would work on a contract with an “outside HVAC company” to improve capacity to address its heat problems.

Several complaints involved buildings in the Roseburg school district, where the majority of classrooms don’t have air conditioning.

“Approximately 85% of our classrooms do not have central air for temperature control, which also means there is no air exchange to keep wildfire smoke out of our buildings or mitigate airborne illnesses,” said Roseburg Superintendent Jared Cordon in an email to OPB.

To respond to heat issues, Cordon said the district has provided fans, asked staff to open windows to circulate air and keep blinds closed during hot parts of the day.

The district has also made an effort to provide water stations at schools and to provide air conditioning units in classrooms serving students with medical conditions triggered by heat.

“These a/c units are a temporary and inadequate solution, as they are not efficient, not effective for large rooms full of students, and they can not be installed in every classroom due to our outdated electrical systems,” Cordon wrote.

But it’s not always as simple as opening the windows. In some schools, especially newer ones, windows don’t open. In other schools, especially during wildfire season, open windows don’t bring relief, they bring in smoke from outside.

That was the focus of one complaint, from the Three Rivers School District in Grants Pass. Superintendent Dave Valenzuela said he visited the classrooms.

“When it’s hot and smoky in a classroom, everyone’s distracted, my staff is distracted, our students are distracted and it makes learning hard,” Valenzuela said.

“I was in many classrooms this past August and beginning of September and it was miserable.”

In addition to training staff to recognize heat exhaustion, Valenzuela said the district has purchased filters and air improvement devices to make changes, along with small A/C units. Staff bring in fans.

But those are small efforts, Valenzuela said, and the district is a long way from a safe learning environment during those hot days.

“I think it has a lot to do with student success,” Valenzuela said. “If we can provide an environment that’s comfortable, that puts them in a place where they’re ready to learn, then we’re doing our job.”

The district, like many across Oregon, is full of old buildings, and retrofitting those buildings to address increasing temperatures and wildfire smoke requires significant capital improvements, which can be difficult to pay for, in small districts with limited revenue.

“We’ve been trying to increase our HVAC capabilities over the years, it’s impossible for us to do it in one fell swoop,” Valenzuela said. “It’s about a $30-million dollar liability for the Three Rivers School District.”

The district has used federal funds to help improve ventilation — money Congress approved to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 in schools. Three Rivers installedmachines used in hospitals that disinfect air at a high rate, called UVCUE devices.

“They provide the equivalent of 10 air changes per hour, which, a normal HVAC system in a room, would provide about four, maybe five,” he said.

But Valenzuela noted the UVCUE doesn’t solve the smoke issues.

One complaint mentions that staff have brought window air conditioning units from home. Valenzuela disputed that but said some classrooms do have window A/C.

When it comes to funding these expensive school improvements, there are a few options. The Oregon Department of Human Services offers grants to school districts to “address HVAC concerns specifically around extreme temperatures,” according to Oregon Department of Education officials, with $5 million available to support school systems, tribal nations, and local governments. Some Oregon districts are using federal money to help schools through the pandemic, called the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds, to update HVAC systems.

The Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching program can also help fund building projects, but it requires districts to put up matching bond funds. That can be a dead end for some Oregon districts, which haven’t been able to get voter approval of bond measures.

“School bonds are the primary manner in which districts in Oregon fund large-scale renovations and new buildings,” Cordon, the Roseburg superintendent, wrote in an email to OPB. “Without a school bond, the district is left with limited options for addressing excessive heat and other building conditions.”

Roseburg intends to present a “scaled-back bond measure” for the ballot next May.

In Josephine County, Three Rivers Superintendent Dave Valenzuela said, a property tax measure to support those kinds of upgrades is hard to pass.

But he said his district is considering a bond next year too, as a way to create better conditions at school.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.