In this week’s episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with V. Kelly Turner, an associate professor at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at the University of California, Los Angeles, about the impacts of heat on students in US schools. Heat not only affects the body but also has implications for children’s behavior and learning outcomes. Turner also discusses architectural and landscape design choices and technology that can mitigate hot temperatures on school grounds, funding sources for improving school infrastructure, and issues of equity in allocating such resources to schools.
Listen to the Podcast
- US schools will have to manage heat year-round: “Heat is going to be a reality, not just over the summer months when schools are less populated, but throughout the school year. This is something that schools everywhere around the United States are going to be dealing with.” (3:35)
- Three ways to mitigate heat effects on students: “The first is the outside areas. We need better school design standards. Right now, the design standards are leading to hotter, treeless, asphalt-driven designs and buildings that maybe aren’t climate-adapted and don’t have air-conditioning … Second, there’s the inside area with no requirement for cooling and no high-heat standards … A third is behavioral management. There are no statewide rules in California about when outdoor activities need to move inside or otherwise adapt when it’s hot.” (11:12)
- Mitigating heat in schools meets a basic need: “We have a free lunch program, and we do that because we recognize that schools provide resources so that kids’ basic needs are met, so that they can learn. This is the same thing with climate change and with heat, in that we’re in a situation now where some kids’ basic needs in terms of … their heat burden [being] too high. Schools really need to be hubs in which children can get the cooling that they need so that they can learn.” (19:48)
Top of the Stack
- The Heat Will Kill You First by Jeff Goodell
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. My guest today is Dr. V. Kelly Turner, an associate professor of urban planning and geography at the University of California, Los Angeles, Luskin School of Public Affairs. Dr. Turner's research addresses the relationship between institutions, urban design, and the environment, and she brings this highly interdisciplinary lens to all of the work she does. She received a PhD in geography from the School of Geographic Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University.
My conversation with Kelly today is a timely one. We'll be discussing how heat impacts school children in California and across the country and how schools can be better designed to stay cool as summer heat lingers into the fall, which is definitely what's happening here in Washington, DC. Stay with us.
Hi, Kelly. Thank you so much for joining me here on Resources Radio.
V. Kelly Turner: Thanks so much for having me today.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, great. Well, I'd love to hear a little bit more about your confluence of research interests and how you ended up working at the intersections of those various sectors and topics that I mentioned at the beginning. Can you just introduce yourself to our listeners a little bit?
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah, sure. Well, I have degrees, as you mentioned, in geography—and also in political science as my undergrad degree. So, I've always been interested in how our policies shape the land and how that then impacts people in their lives.
Because I'm a geographer, and we deal a lot with maps, remote sensing, and satellite imagery data, I started looking at heat, because that's one of the things that satellites can see and can sense. But very, very quickly, as I started working with stakeholders and talking to them about problems related to heat, I realized that heat is really something that people experience in many different ways on the ground.
So, now, I use a lot of different types of sensors. I have a heat-seeking robot that I go out with sometimes, “MaRTy.” It was invented by my colleague at Arizona State, Ariane Middel. We take that out, and we see how people are experiencing the environment, including children at schools. We've taken MaRTy to some schools out here in the San Fernando Valley. We look at that, but then we also kind of try to take that data and step back and think about why it is so hot and what we can do about it. That's where we end up starting to look at policies.
Kristin Hayes: First of all, I love that the robot has a name. If you hadn't introduced the robot's name, I was immediately going to ask you if the robot has a name. That's great. And yeah, I would love to hear more about some of those tools that you've deployed.
So, of course, today, we're particularly talking about heat and schools and the impact of those hot days on both schools and, of course, the students within them. You and I are recording this episode just after Labor Day, which means that, pretty much across the country, kids are now officially back in schools. And yes, I've been slightly complaining about this, but here in Washington, DC, we really are in the middle of a heat wave that feels like the depths of July. So, it really does seem like a timely conversation. But I'm curious. As you looked across the world of heat and heat impacts broadly, how did the particular subject of heat in schools first come on your radar?
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah, that's a great question. Well, first, I'd like to say your comment is super important to the conversation today, because here we are in September, and it's exceptionally hot. Heat is going to be a reality, not just over the summer months when schools are less populated, but throughout the school year. This is something that schools everywhere around the United States are going to be dealing with. Dealing with temperatures that are 80°F, 90°F, and 100°F is something that can happen as late as November in some parts. But how did we land on schools?
In my lab, we do a lot of work measuring and monitoring heat, and we were looking through some of our data. Specifically, we were looking at the neighborhood of Watts, Los Angeles, and we were looking at some of the mapping that we had done, and there was this big red spot on the map. Red is a hotter area, as you might guess, and it popped out. We started just going on Google Earth and looking at these big red spots that we're seeing, and they were, more often than not, schools. In this case, the big red spot, the hottest place in all of the neighborhood of Watts, was a school.
The reason for that is because the school has this abundance of asphalt and then also artificial turf, and both of these surfaces are exceptionally hot. Then, we started mapping out all the locations of schools around Los Angeles and noticing that this was a pattern. There's a pattern of a certain type of development that by design is making schools some of the hottest places in neighborhoods.
Kristin Hayes: Are there other factors? You mentioned the asphalt, the turf—the surfaces around schools. Are there other factors that can lead schools to really be hotspots when compared even to other types of relatively urban structures?
V. Kelly Turner: Yes. The buildings, especially in California and a lot of the Sun Belt states—the way that schools are designed typically is spread out, low-lying, single-story buildings. There's very little opportunity for those buildings to cast shade or shadow.
The other thing that you notice about schools—this is a very interesting sort of pattern—is that there are no trees on the campus. The trees tend to be immediately upon the outside of the school. If you go outside the gates, that's when trees will start being located. When you go to the schools and visit them, you'll notice this phenomenon of children kind of hanging out along the outskirts of the campus around the gate to try to get some of the shade from the trees that are not on campus.
Kristin Hayes: Mm-hmm. That's interesting. Another thing that I noted that you wrote in some of your recent writing on this topic is that children are actually more susceptible to heat stress than adults. I want to just talk about that for a little bit, too. What are some of the consequences for young people? In particular, either physical well-being or, in this case, learning outcomes that really affect them given that they have to function in these high temperatures?
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah. A lot of our conversation around extreme heat does focus on adults, and it focuses on the extreme, extreme conditions of getting heat stroke, heat illness, and death because of those. But that conversation maybe takes us a little off target. For children, they are certainly susceptible to those same things, but in the school context, they're probably more likely to have behavioral and focus issues. We know that when it's hot, people have trouble focusing. Children have trouble focusing. They get angrier. Those just set up conditions where children can't learn as well.
Some research suggests that each school day over 80°F lowers test scores. This is particularly acute in Black and Hispanic students. So, there's sort of an equity dimension here. But one anecdote I like to bring up: kids haven't developed their sense of, When am I too hot or too cold? Their internal thermal regulation and their ability to recognize that in their brain function is not mature. So, kids will expose themselves to dangerous conditions when an adult might have the trigger to recognize and say, "Oh, it's too hot or too cold."
My daughter, for instance, like a lot of kids, likes the Disney movie Frozen, and there's this line in the song, "The cold didn't bother me anyway." My daughter's six, and she would say this to me when it's too cold. But the cold does bother her. She just doesn't understand, right? So kids just don't have the ability—the awareness—to recognize being too hot, and they're affected in terms of their concentration and their learning ability.
Kristin Hayes: Those things, as a student, are really critical to what you're doing, right? They're ancillary to your main task, which is learning. I can see that that would be very challenging.
So let's dive into your research specifically on California and some of the specifics of what you've been looking at and what you've been finding. One of the contextual questions that I'd love to ask and that I know you have some good information on is what information is actually available about temperature profiles in these California schools? You mentioned that there's some satellite data that's given you some insights. But what information is available about cooling solutions, as well? What do we know, if anything, about how schools are in fact attempting to lower indoor temperatures or outdoor temperatures for their students?
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah. Well, unfortunately, we don't have a lot of good information, and that's true for heat across the board. I've been studying heat for a while, but the past 3–5 years is really the first time that I've seen serious concerted efforts to both gather information on and address heat in policy, and schools are no different. But schools are a little bit different in terms of data collection, because the state only has so much authority. Often the data that we have and the rules that govern schools are very local to different school districts.
In the state of California, for instance, we don't have good audits of the facilities. We don't know how many schools have air-conditioning. We don't know how many of those air-conditioning units work, and we don't know if the schools can afford to operate them or what they're spending on cooling. Those are low-lying, first-level pieces of information that could be collected by the state. The state does do annual surveys of schools. I would recommend that, as a very first cut, the state just ask schools if they have air conditioning and, "Does your air conditioning operate?"
Beyond that, we actually don't really know much about the state of the buildings themselves or the play areas outside, the play yards, and the outdoor facilities, as well. In general, more information about what's happening at schools would be welcome, and there's actually a piece of legislation right now that's being considered in the California State Assembly to collect that data.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, so it sounds like we don't totally know the extent of the problem, but folks are trying to remedy the lack of information. But I imagine there are some suggestions at least about potential solutions, even if, again, the full extent of the problem isn't quite understood. So, how would you characterize some of the cooling options that either you and your colleagues have identified—or other folks working on these heat issues? Then, I'd love to ask you kind of about how feasible those are, but let's start just by maybe talking through what some of those cooling options look like.
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah, okay. We think about cooling options in three buckets. After we've acknowledged that there is a problem now, we can kind of look at the problem in three ways. The first is the outside areas. We need better school design standards. Right now, the design standards are leading to hotter, treeless, asphalt-driven designs and buildings that maybe aren't climate-adapted and don't have air-conditioning. Right, so, there's the outdoor area first.
Second, there's the inside area with no requirement for cooling and no high-heat standards. Schools don't even track cooling. That's the second sort of bucket and area where we can address.
Then, a third is behavioral management. There are no statewide rules in California about when outdoor activities need to move inside or otherwise adapt when it's hot. Considering how schools will manage heat based on where and when activities are happening is a third area.
Then, I might add, as sort of a bonus, a longer-range goal is that we really need to legislate and fund programs that can address indoor, outdoor, and behavioral adaptations.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well, I can already imagine that that is one barrier—one perpetual barrier—to putting some of those solutions in place is around resource availability, right? Making sure that, particularly, schools that may not be as well-resourced from the outset actually have access to funds to make some of these things possible. I'd love to hear a little bit more about that, about funding availability, and then other opportunities or barriers that you see to putting some of those solutions in place.
V. Kelly Turner: Schools are chronically underfunded. That's a conversation that we've been having as a nation for a long time. At least here in California, schools are funded through bonds, and the last bond measure for school funding failed. And so we're in a situation where schools are already resource constrained, they're not seeing more injections of funding, and then our research is saying, "You need to do more to adapt your campuses to climate change." So, I mean, one of the things that we can do is to adequately fund our schools.
A second way to fund is through grant programs, and that's how the state has been addressing this. So, for instance, we have a program run by CAL FIRE, which is a tree-planting program, and it gives awards to schools so that they can increase tree canopy up to 30 percent on campus. That program also is supposed to fund predominantly disadvantaged schools. But one of the problems with grant-based programs is that schools may not have the resources to go after the grants, because they don't have enough staff, or they just don't have the capacity to go after them. So, one of the ironic things with the grant programs is it could unintentionally widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots in terms of schools, because the haves have the capacity to go after these grants.
There's also things that can be done that don't involve funding. For instance, the California Architects Board approves school retrofits, letting them have some guidance in terms of what is a good heat adaptation measure and what is not, and our research is starting to show what kind of materials and designs would work well. So, giving them that, but also maybe mandating the prioritization of funding based on climate—not just heat, but all climate adaptation.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. I'd love to ask you a little bit more about a couple of the challenges that you just highlighted, too, particularly on the complexity of the funding process even when that funding does exist. I thought that was a really interesting challenge that you raised there. I wanted to ask—are policymakers in California or elsewhere really thinking about that challenge as something that they need to be focused on? Are they actually working in any ways to reduce the burden of getting the funding when it is allocated?
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah, so this takes some creativity, and it takes some thinking outside the box. I think, traditionally, we think about environmental problems from an environmental-management lens. But what we do at Luskin Center—that's the research center where I work and do a lot of this work under—we think about a whole-of-government approach sector by sector.
So, if you want to address heat in schools, it's not just about having something like this tree-planting program that I mentioned. It's about looking at all the ways that we fund and manage schools and if those are making it harder or easier to implement no-nonsense solutions to adapt to a hotter climate. Let me give you an example: In the United States, a certain amount of funding for infrastructure updates needs to go to Americans with Disability Act improvements. This is a good thing. We want that. So, a certain amount of budget for any sort of physical update needs to have a portion allocated towards Americans with Disability Act upgrades.
In California, we've gone further and said, "Actually, we need a larger share of the budget to go towards these upgrades." Unfortunately, what that means is, for a school to do something like, for instance, installing a shade sail, they then have to add to their budget Americans with Disability Act upgrades. They can't just allocate funding for a shade sail. So, that might make something that was a low-cost measure a much higher-cost measure, and it might be a barrier for some schools. There's currently legislation in California being considered to roll back that funding requirement in some instances so that schools can do something that's a little bit more streamlined in terms of addressing creating shade on a play structure.
Kristin Hayes: Right. Okay. That's a really helpful example. It's good to hear about the specifics, too. We've touched a little bit in this conversation, too, on equity, and that's another point that I really did want to come back to you. You mentioned that there are many ways in which distributions of funds, whether it's through the formal bond system or through some of the accessibility or availability of grants and the ability to access those, all of these things can—I think the phrase you used was, “actually make the gap in achievement and resource availability worse.” How are folks in California thinking about equity when it comes to these questions of distribution of funding or other resources that really start to get at some of these problems?
V. Kelly Turner: In California, we have a disadvantaged-school status. That is something that is supposed to guide how we allocate funding. At the federal level, we have Justice40; it's a very similar sort of program that we're guided by. But I would say that, going beyond just how funding is distributed and which schools are being prioritized, there are these sort of low-key, under-the-radar issues about capacity in these schools—and also thinking about how schools are not just islands.
I think about a child who lives maybe in a disadvantaged community. Maybe they live in a rental dwelling that doesn't have air-conditioning, and then they walk to school, and they live essentially in a shade desert—meaning there's not enough tree and other engineered shade canopy on their walk to school to keep them cool. And then, they go to a school that's maybe really, really hot and doesn't have cooling capacity inside, and then they repeat that commute back home. That child is basically maybe not being exposed to dangerous levels of heat, but they have this kind of chronically hotter condition than maybe a wealthier student.
So, schools are really catchment areas in which we have to think about the child's whole life. And then, with schools, we can think about them as resources. And we already do this, right? We have a free lunch program, and we do that because we recognize that schools provide resources so that kids' basic needs are met, so that they can learn. This is the same thing with climate change and with heat, in that we're in a situation now where some kids' basic needs in terms of their heat burden—their heat burden is too high. So, schools really need to be hubs in which children can get the cooling that they need so that they can learn.
Kristin Hayes: Very interesting. Well, let me throw one more question at you somewhat spontaneously. It was in our conversation on solutions, and I think you were talking about some of the creative materials and other kinds of possibilities for actually building some of these outdoor surfaces a little differently than we have in the past. I hope I'm not extrapolating too much, but if I interpreted that correctly, I'd love to hear a little bit more about that, as well. What are some of the creative things that people are thinking about?
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah. When it comes to addressing heat in the outdoor spaces through design, there's really sort of two ways to think about protecting children. You can either block the sun from hitting their bodies, or you can reflect the sun off surfaces. So, in the design world, there's sun blocking and sun reflecting. Sun blocking is exactly what you'd think of. It's shade. It's providing either tree canopy or other engineered shade structures, or even thinking about designs that are multistory or involve atrium areas. We can increase shade that way.
The other bucket is this reflecting. We know that asphalt is really, really hot. The sun hits it. It slowly absorbs solar energy and reradiates that throughout the day, causing both surfaces to feel hot, but also the experience of standing above asphalt is particularly hot, especially in the late afternoon. So, there's a suite of solutions that have to do with changing surfaces—things like using cool pavement to reflect that sun's energy.
That's something that we're hesitant to get on board with, quite frankly, because one of the things that happens is heat energy can't be created or destroyed. It's only transferred. When the sun hits asphalt, it's slowly reradiated back throughout the day. But when it hits cool pavement, what that does is it actually reradiates that solar energy more quickly. So, you get what we call a heat penalty around 11 a.m.–3 p.m. in the middle of the day where it's actually a little bit hotter if you're standing directly above a cool surface than you would feel on asphalt, which is very counterintuitive, right.? This is problematic for schools, because that's when kids have recess. You have a vulnerable group being very active in the middle of the day.
If a school's interested in reducing burns from the touch of asphalt, then that's one thing cool pavement would help with, but it's not going to be protecting their bodies from the sun. And just to kind of put some numbers and scale on this—when you're standing in the sun compared to somebody just a few feet away in the shade, you feel somewhere between 20–40°C hotter than somebody in the shade. That's using something called “mean radiant temperature,” which is a measure of all the various ways that we experience heat: incoming sunlight, humidity, air temperature, surface temperature—all these various points together create the experience of heat.
Kristin Hayes: Well, it certainly feels that way today. This has been such an interesting conversation, and given that I imagine many of our listeners do have children who are now back in schools—as you do, as well—it’s just really good for us to understand a little bit more about this really critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to dealing with the impacts of climate change. So, I just want to thank you for your time.
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah. And I would like to mention that there are some wonderful groups doing work on this issue. The Trust for Public Land has the Living Schoolyards Coalition, which has been working to green schools and campuses and rethink what play means. In California, for instance, play has traditionally been defined as asphalt-heavy activities—things like basketball and handball. But the Living Schoolyards Coalition is really advocating that play can incorporate being creative amongst trees and greenery, and it can mean so many different things, right? We have legislation currently pending in California for schools to consider creating greening master plans. We have grant-based programs. And at the federal level, there's actually the Living Schoolyard Act, which would also be something that would, if it passes, be a grant-based program available to schools nationwide.
Kristin Hayes: Fantastic. I can certainly see there could be some low-maintenance but still very effective solutions for rewilding some spaces, and it's just a different kind of play. That's really cool.
Kelly, this has been great. I do want to close our discussion with our regular Top of the Stack feature, and you've given us some great suggestions already for good content programs that folks might want to take a look at. But is there any other media—books, articles, or even another podcast—that you'd want to recommend? Kelly, let me ask you, What's on the top of your stack?
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah. Well, there's a great book that was just published this summer by Jeff Goodell, and it's called The Heat Will Kill You First. It's kind of a dramatic name, but it's actually a really wonderful narrative about all the ways that heat affects the body and puts this in sort of a plain language so that everyone can understand that, even though we don't see it like a hurricane or a fire, heat does have really pernicious effects on society.
Kristin Hayes: Great. Well, we'll make sure to put a link to that on the podcast page so that our listeners can check it out.
Well, this feels like a strange thing to say at the end of this conversation, but stay cool. I hope that everything goes well for your daughter as she begins her school year, and we'll look forward to staying in touch.
V. Kelly Turner: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
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