Learning in the heat

Learning in the heat

/ 04:20 AM April 08, 2024

Five years ago, a class of ninth graders at the nonprofit school I run tried to make me see things differently. They were learning in Araling Panlipunan how powerful letters can be in sparking change. When their teacher challenged them to write to someone who could make a real difference about an issue they cared about, they chose me.

Their letter suggested putting air-conditioning in all our classrooms—an idea I found endearing but impractical at the time. As a low-cost private school, air-conditioning seemed like a luxury we couldn’t afford, especially with soaring electricity costs. But as the heat continues to grow more intense each year, I have come to realize that air-conditioning is fast becoming a necessity. The issue is no longer just about mere comfort but about giving our students a fair chance to learn and succeed.

Numerous research has established a clear link between extreme heat and reduced student learning. A study conducted by Harvard University found that high school students scored lower on standardized tests when they experienced a hot school year. The Environmental Protection Agency also reported that climate-driven temperatures may lead to as much as 4 to 7 percent reduction in annual academic achievement per child, which could then lead to stunted opportunities and future financial losses.

Since children from low-income families are more likely to be in schools without air-conditioning and optimal ventilation, the negative impact on academic performance by classrooms’ increasing temperatures disproportionately affects underprivileged students. It is becoming painfully clear that the widening disparities in education are among the more concrete manifestations of the broader injustices wrought by climate change.


This is the same reality faced by students in the Philippines. An online survey recently conducted by the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) among 11,706 public school teachers nationwide found that around 67 percent of teachers said the heat in their classroom is intolerable.

The adverse effects of a hot classroom extend beyond academic development. Heat affects students’ social and emotional well-being, making it harder to concentrate, increasing impulsiveness, and even raising the likelihood of aggression. It also presents serious health risks, potentially worsening existing health issues such as asthma or heart conditions. This leads to increased absenteeism, further compromising student progress.

Teachers are not spared from the adverse effects of high temperatures either. Their ability to engage, inspire, and maintain patience is also severely tested by the stifling heat. This not only affects their well-being but can also diminish the quality of education they’re able to provide, creating a ripple effect that impacts the entire learning ecosystem.

Based on the ACT survey results, majority of respondents (97 percent) rely on electric fans for ventilation in the classroom, while only one percent have air-conditioners and 2 percent depend on natural ventilation. Experts say, however, that if the temperature inside the classroom approaches 38 degrees Celsius, it could be too hot for a fan. Fans could exacerbate the heat, similar to a convection oven, making the room feel warmer and intensifying the discomfort.


In my column last May, “Heat action plans: We need them NOW,” I emphasized the urgent need for evidence-based heat mitigation and adaptation strategies, particularly targeting low-income communities that bear the greatest brunt of its devastating effects. Climate change isn’t a distant threat but a present crisis. The cost of inaction could be tangibly measured in lost learning opportunities alongside the compromised health and well-being of students. Solutions need to include a long-term commitment to transforming our educational infrastructure to meet the realities of a warming world— including allocating funds to install air-conditioning and/or improve ventilation in schools and modernizing buildings to regulate indoor temperatures more effectively.

In the meantime, school administrators must already proactively develop emergency heat response strategies, specific to their circumstances. These should include defining specific temperature thresholds for adjusting or suspending outdoor activities and indoor classes. Implementing shortened classes or moving to an online setup to address the issue is really not ideal, especially since we are still recovering from the long closure of schools during lockdown. However, anticipating possible disruptions and preparing in advance for such eventualities might at least help minimize the learning loss.


Reflecting on my students’ suggestion from five years ago, I now see it with new clarity. Our school is still faced with the same budget constraints but we have made addressing the rising classroom temperatures a priority. As educators, we have the responsibility not just to safeguard our students’ health and academic potential, but also to take a stand for educational equity in the face of a changing climate.

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TAGS: education, heat wave, opinion, schools

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