Rising temperatures leave Oregon schools struggling with excessive heat

In early September, temperatures recorded by teachers at a college in Portland reached 100 degrees, with a heat index of 124 degrees.

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

“We have received reports of students and staff suffering from heat-related illnesses in the past week, including a student vomiting until he passed out and having a serious medical condition,” said Portland Association of Teachers Vice President Jacque Dixon at a conference. SPP Board Meeting September 6.

Dixon said teacher representatives reported temperatures of 90 degrees “in most schools”.

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

As temperatures rise due to climate change, schools have begun to tackle a new back-to-school challenge: how to keep schools comfortable and safe for staff and students. According to data received by the OPB, since August 24, OSHA in Oregon has received multiple complaints about unsafe conditions in schools. Many of these related to heat stress in schools, or the lack of access to cold water for staff and students. OSHA has received complaints about school districts in Portland, Beaverton, Corbett, Eugene, Roseburg, Springfield and Greater Albany.

Complainants describe staff bringing their own window units from home to cool classrooms. They documented that students and staff felt weak, and they complained that schools lacked functioning windows to increase air circulation.

Other complaints relate to other potential impacts on working conditions, including construction activities 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 below 80 degrees Fahrenheit,” according to OSHA, which could mean school districts may not need the training.

But officials at Beaverton, Three Rivers and Roseburg said employees are required to take training related to preventing heat-related illnesses.

At least one of the complaints about Portland’s public schools came from the teachers’ union, Portland Association of Teachers president Angela Bonilla said. And the heat problems are not limited to one school.

“It’s everywhere,” Bonilla said. “If you see a brick building, chances are it’s overheated.”

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

“We know it’s 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 to relieve the heat – such as fans and access to water – remain a problem.

During a visit to Ida B. Wells High School in southwest Portland, Bonilla said he saw seven water coolers serving the entire campus, which last year had nearly 1,700 students .

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

The neighborhood has a extreme heat planbut Bonilla said ensuring employees get training on preventing heat-related illnesses hasn’t been a priority for the district.

Portland Public Schools administrators did not respond to a request for comment Friday night.

Heating Solutions for Schools Across Oregon

Other districts have taken steps to address OSHA complaints and broader difficulties cooling students and staff in hot school buildings.

In Beaverton, a complaint has been filed about Tumwater Middle School, alleging temperatures were “86-90” at the end of August, and an employee passed out from the heat.

After investigating the complaint and speaking to school administrators, the district does not believe any employee passed out. However, the district said it would work on a contract with an “outside HVAC company” to improve its ability to address its heat issues.

Several complaints involved buildings in the Roseburg School District, where the majority of classrooms are not air-conditioned.

“About 85% of our classrooms have no central air for temperature control, which also means there is no air exchange to keep wildfire smoke out. enter our buildings or mitigate airborne disease,” Roseburg Superintendent Jared Cordon said in an email to OPB.

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

The district has also worked to provide water stations in schools and provide air conditioning units in classrooms serving students with heat-triggered medical conditions.

“These air conditioning units are a temporary and inadequate solution, as they are not efficient, not effective for large rooms full of students, and they cannot be installed in all classrooms 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, the windows do not open. In other schools, especially during forest fire season, open windows do not bring relief, they bring in smoke from outside.

This was the subject of a 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 gets distracted, my staff get distracted, our students get distracted and it makes learning difficult,” Valenzuela said.

“I was in many classrooms last August and early September and it was miserable.”

In addition to training staff to recognize heat exhaustion, Valenzuela said the district purchased filters and air-enhancing devices to make modifications, as well as small air-conditioning units. The staff brings in fans.

But these are small efforts, Valenzuela said, and the district is far from a safe learning environment on these hot days.

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

The district, like many in Oregon, is full of old buildings, and retrofitting those buildings to cope with rising temperatures and smoke from wildfires requires major capital improvements, which can be difficult to achieve. pay, in small districts with limited incomes.

“We’ve tried to increase our HVAC capabilities over the years, it’s impossible for us to do it all at once,” Valenzuela said. “This is a liability of approximately $30 million for the Three Rivers School District.”

The district used federal funds to help improve ventilation — money approved by Congress to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 in schools. Three Rivers installed machines used in hospitals that disinfect the 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 that UVCUE does not solve smoke problems.

One complaint mentions that staff brought window air conditioners from their homes. Valenzuela disputed that, but said some classrooms had window air conditioning.

When it comes to funding those expensive school improvements, there are a few options. The Oregon Department of Social Services is offering grants to school districts to “specifically address HVAC issues related to extreme temperatures,” according to Oregon Department of Education officials, with $5 million available to support school systems, tribal nations and local governments. Some districts in Oregon use federal funds to help schools through the pandemic, called emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools, to update HVAC systems.

The Oregon School Capital Improvement Matching program can also help fund building projects, but it requires districts to raise matching bond funds. That may be a stalemate for some Oregon districts, which have been unable to gain voter approval for the bond measures.

“School bonds are the primary way Oregon districts 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 to deal with excessive heat and other building conditions.”

Roseburg intends to introduce a “reduced bond measure” for next May’s ballot.

In Josephine County, said Three Rivers Superintendent Dave Valenzuela, a property tax measure to support these kinds of improvements is difficult to pass.

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

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