Keep pressure on to keep heat down

Heat chartTemperature extremes--especially heat--are both a health issue and an education issue. In a large number of New Jersey schools, they are a political issue as well.

The National Weather Service created a "Heat Index," a measure of how it feels when relative humidity is added to air temperature. A ventilation system can provide air movement, and air conditioning can lower both temperature and humidity. Without them students and staff may be at risk.

This summer New Jersey may be expected to heat up more than usual given that the 12-month period ending this March was the warmest 12-month period on record in the state, according to the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist. What will this mean for the schools?

Outside temperature is just the beginning. Inside temperature can be as much as 20 F higher than outdoor temperature, depending on heat coming in through roof and windows, number of people in the building, and heat-producing activities, such as use of ovens, kilns, copiers, and computers. And perceived temperature depends not only on temperature, but also on humidity, which makes it feel hotter, and air movement, which makes you feel cooler.

Heat and health

Temperatures above 80 F can be a health problem, depending on other factors, such as activity level, clothing, and the physical condition of staff and students.

The body gets warmer from metabolizing food and from physical activity, as well as from ambient temperature. The body has remarkable mechanisms to keep its internal core temperature at or near normal, approximately 98.2 F. Among them is sweating: the energy it takes to evaporate sweat is removed from the body as heat. That's why moving air cools you. It has more capacity to evaporate your sweat. It's important to drink enough water to replace the lost fluid. The body also moves warmed blood to the surface where it can be radiated away from the skin.

If the body gets too hot—more than 3 F above normal—its control mechanisms may be overwhelmed and serious consequences can result, ranging from heat rash to life-threatening heat.

Temporary solutions

Staff can take common-sense measures, such as opening windows, closing blinds and shades, and using fans (though they are not effective above 95 F). Schools can relocate staff and students to cooler areas, dismiss school early or provide portable air conditioners on wheels. And everyone can drink water, and avoid caffeine and alcohol, which dehydrate the body.

Politics not hot enough

Long-term solutions are of course better. Many buildings have limited or failed ventilation systems, and many are without air conditioning.

Data collected by the New Jersey Department of Education in June of 2011 by the 31 Schools Development Districts (the former "Abbott Districts"), illustrates the problem. The districts were asked to identify imminent hazardous conditions. Seventy-seven schools reported HVAC systems in need of repairs or not functioning at all. Of these, 12 schools reported temperature extremes from inadequate heat or air conditioning. A year later, the Christie administration has not even decided which repairs to do. And these data do not include all the schools not in the Development Districts with HVAC systems in need of repair.

Regulation needed

There are no federal government standards regulating school temperature. A bill designating temperatures at which action must be taken, has been introduced in the New Jersey legislature every year since 2007, but has not passed. Currently A-2492 and its Senate companion S-817 languish in the education committees of the two houses. Major provisions of the Assembly bill

With the weather heating up, but the political climate frosty, major construction and repairs may be tough to obtain. However, local associations can strive for contract language including:

  • Permanent temperature and humidity monitoring system so building operators can adjust the ventilation system.
  • Solar film on windows, skylights, glass walls, etc.
  • Exterior awnings and shades or shade trees
  • Reflective window shades and blinds
  • Ceiling fans (at least 8 feet high)
  • Replacement windows that block the heat (“low-e” windows)
  • Replace/coat roof with bright white or shiny material
  • Better thermostats with staff control
  • Air conditioning, using window or wall units, a central forced air system or unit ventilators that provide cooling as well as heat.

>> What locals can do

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