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Hawaii Classrooms: How Hot Is Too Hot?

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon

This year’s heat wave has brought record temperatures to the islands. Much of it felt inside the state’s sweltering classrooms, where most are without central air conditioning. Those high temperatures bring more than just discomfort for students, they can also be dangerous. HPR’s Molly Solomon reports.

Kimberly Wing first noticed the heat at Ka‘elepulu Elementary during Back to School night. “It was evening and I would estimate it was probably at least 85 degrees, if not hotter, in each one of their classrooms,” said Wing, whose two daughters are in third and fourth grade at the Kailua school.

Courtesy of Kimberly Wing
Credit Courtesy of Kimberly Wing
Kimberly Wing's 9-year-old daughter, Hana, came home from school last week with a heat rash across her face. She is one of many children who lack air conditioning in their classrooms.

Wing is among several parents who have taken to a Facebook group called Cool Our Keiki to rally support for more air conditioning in Hawai‘i classrooms. Recently she shared a photo of her nine-year old daughter who had broken out with a heat rash across her face. “They have a hard time, they really do,” said Wing. “They have a hard time just being there. And that’s what I’m most concerned about because there’s just nowhere for them to go.”

Like 90 percent of the state’s public schools, Wing’s daughters are in classrooms without campus-wide air conditioning. With temperatures reaching into the 90s, Pediatrician Rachel Coel says that can be dangerous. The medical director at Queens Center for Sports Medicine says the record breaking weather is especially taxing on vulnerable populations, like young school children.

“The younger crowd and the older crowd are the groups that we worry about most when we talk about environmental heat illness,” said Coel. “That’s the heat illness we find when people are trapped in a hot environment, such as a classroom, a car, an apartment.”

Coel says it doesn’t take long to overheat, especially in a sweltering classroom with little ventilation and no air conditioning. “The classic symptoms often begin with a headache, followed by nausea,” explains Coel. “It can then progress to difficulty with thinking, which is obviously important in young school age children because this could really affect their scholarship.”

Courtesy of Zee Martinez
Credit Courtesy of Zee Martinez
Hot classrooms are inspiring some teachers to include it in their lesson plans. A photo from a first grade class at Pearl Harbor Kai Elementary.

And research shows it already is. That’s according to Paul Eakin, a pediatric emergency doctor at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children. “There’s actually been some research on how extreme temperatures affect school performance,” said Eakin. “They show that temperatures even over 80 degrees will show decreased concentration and decreased performance on testing.”

But Eakin and Cole both say it can be difficult to pinpoint an exact temperature for when a school should close. “The actual temperature our body feels is not exactly the temperature you’re going to see on a thermometer. There are other factors that go into it,” said Coel, like humidity and wind speed from the trades. “[This year] we have had that unfortunate cruel event where we have the high temperature, very high humidity and we’ve lost our trade winds. This is that perfect storm that can make classrooms really intolerable.”

The Department of Education says it’s working with the state Department of Health to provide safety guidelines to deal with these year’s high temperatures. But parents like Kimberly Wing say more needs to be done for students.

“If I walk into my child’s classroom and it’s like walking into a sauna, that’s too hot,” said Wing. “We need a more permanent solution to get that temperature down so these kids can concentrate.”

Molly Solomon
Molly Solomon joined HPR in May 2012 as an intern for the morning talk show The Conversation. She has since worn a variety of hats around the station, doing everything from board operator to producer.
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