Once again, this year we hear families and teachers complaining about the high temperatures inside the classrooms. And this is happening long before summer arrives, as this April Catalonia has experienced typical summer temperatures that have meant that the Department de Salut of the Catalan Government had to advance the action plan for the prevention of the effects of heat waves by a month and a half.
The heat suffered by students in classrooms is a problem that has been discussed for many years. But real solutions are still far from being found. Moreover, the climate situation, officially declared an emergency in 2020, has no prospect of improving in the near future; so it is to be expected that the heat in classrooms will only increase in the coming years. We must act decisively if we are to remedy this.
We talked to Mònica Ubalde, postdoctoral researcher at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and part of the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative of the centre, to better understand this problem and learn about effective proposals to cool down public schools in Barcelona and improve the health and well-being of the occupants.
How is it that the temperature in Catalan public schools is so high?
When most public schools were built, they were not built with the idea that they would have to withstand these temperatures, nor the intense and long heat waves that we are increasingly experiencing on a regular basis. In fact, the mentality was rather the opposite; the buildings were built to keep and take advantage of the sun’s light and heat. That is why now, when we analyse schools for cooling them, we find that many of them are oriented towards the south, seeking a more optimal incidence of the sunlight.
We must also bear in mind that we live in an exceptional climate situation that is alarming and will not improve in the short term. And while this is a much bigger problem with a much more complex solution, we can do things to make spaces and environments more resilient and less hot by generating coolness.
The Department of Education announced the purchase of fans and aircons for the next school year. Is this a good solution?
For many years now, parent associations and teachers, as well as experts, have been warning about high temperatures in classrooms and their acute and long-term effects on health and well-being. So, it’s all very well for the heat to arrive now and for fans to be handed out… but reactive responses are not the ultimate solution. We are in a climate emergency situation which, moreover, is getting worse and worse, and which means that the heat will affect more school months. It is necessary to take programmed and more forceful measures.
“Schools are public facilities without air conditioning, but the solution to cool them down is not to install air conditioning”
Unlike libraries or civic centres, schools are public facilities that do not have air conditioning. But installing them in all schools goes against climate resilience. For example, in Barcelona there are about 500 public schools (392 of them are nurseries and primary schools). Let’s imagine that we decide to install air conditioning in all of them; but where do we do it? In all the classrooms? Only in the common areas? In the teachers’ rooms?
This is why various alternative options for cooling the classrooms are being considered:
- Create an oasis space inside the schools that is air-conditioned and that students can access at specific times to cool down.
- Cool the environment around schools because, even if we can lower the temperature inside the school, it is still very hot outside. Greening the environment with more vegetation and removing asphalt, especially in cities where there is an urban heat island effect, will help to cool the schools.
- Internal solutions with more conservative proposals such as cross ventilation. Although there are centres where it may be more complicated to put this into practice, there are others where it can be done with small adjustments (opening windows that were not previously operable, for example).
- Mechanical solutions such as ceiling fans.
These measures, however, must be accompanied by a strategy of structural changes and connected with sustainable interventions. It is a mistake to think that thermal comfort and sustainability do not go hand in hand.
At ISGlobal you had the opportunity to evaluate the impact of measures to cool cities and schools. How did it go?
Yes, we participated in the project “Adapting schools to climate change through green, blue and grey“, which sought to turn 11 public schools in the city into climate shelters – indoor or outdoor spaces that provide accessible thermal comfort for citizens – through interventions that included elements of water (blue), vegetation (green) and shade (pergolas and green), as well as insulation and ventilation of the buildings (grey).
The City Council organised participatory sessions with teachers, students, families and people from the neighbourhood and districts to discuss the interventions to be implemented in schools. With this information, and after a review of the scientific literature and an evaluation of physical indicators (state of the buildings, degree of insolation, etc.), the most appropriate and feasible actions to implement in each school were chosen.
“Not much is known about how thermal discomfort affects teacher productivity”
The project involved different institutions in assessing the impact of these transformations with different quantitative and qualitative methodologies. At ISGlobal, we studied the impact on environmental quality, children’s attention levels, as well as teachers’ well-being. This idea arose because schools are the workplace for teachers, they spend many hours there interacting with pupils, and their well-being (which can be influenced by thermal discomfort) is likely to influence their and the students’ ability to concentrate, pay attention and perform – and in the medium to long term, the learning process itself. Furthermore, although thermal discomfort has been studied in university and adult academic settings, there is not much literature on the effect of discomfort with environmental quality on teacher productivity in primary schools.
And what were the results?
On the one hand, we measured the teachers’ perception of the heat in the classrooms and the environmental quality of the school with validated questionnaires that were administered both in schools where the transformations were carried out and in schools where no transformations were carried out, in order to be able to make comparisons (we could not compare the same schools before or after due to Covid19). As perception is subjective, we complemented it with objective measurements of temperature and humidity with hygrothermal buttons that teachers wore during school hours. And we observed that, objectively and after the transformations, there was not a very significant improvement in terms of the average temperature and humidity to which they are exposed.
On the other hand, the children in 5th grade completed cognitive tests with which we were able to measure their ability to concentrate. This, together with the questionnaires completed by the teachers, allowed us to observe a correlation between the teachers’ perception of environmental quality and the students’ attentional performance. Thus, the worse the perception of environmental quality and the greater the thermal discomfort on the part of the teachers, the lower the level of attention of the students.
We also observed that a negative perception of indoor environmental quality among teachers might be associated with lower productivity, reflected in the number of limiting symptoms and prolonged periods of absence due to health problems.
What should we expect in the future?
The city of Barcelona is still committed to improving thermal conditions in schools, with a programme (Transformem els Patis) in place since 2020 that has already transformed the playgrounds of some 20 primary schools. And in February the city programme “Bressols pel Clima” was presented, which seeks to implement measures to cool kindergartens, among other measures to combat the climate crisis from early childhood.
“Urban health is prevention and health promotion that we can do from the city, as long as we have actors who are willing to design, implement, maintain and evaluate interventions”
But we have to make sure that the solutions that are implemented really work. And that we don’t find ourselves arriving in April (or September, when we come back from holidays) with school classrooms at 35-40ºC.
These types of transformations are not simply aesthetic elements, they are public health tools that should benefit a very important group of the population. Public health is prevention and we can do it from the city, as long as we have actors who are willing to implement measures. It is also important to involve citizens, who are responsible for providing context both in the identification of the problem and needs, as well as in the research and proposal of potential solutions and actions for change. With regard to the heat in classrooms, the families associations (AFAs) and the children themselves have acted as the loudspeaker that has made the political decision-makers get down to work to solve this problem.