Research project looks for solutions to protect children from extreme heat

On site research collection with MaRTy cart

Project advisor Jennifer Vanos, left, and William Walker, discuss the data we collected at Paideia Academies using the MaRTy cart, which helps us gauge the human thermal experience while walking. (Adora Shortridge/Arizona State University)

By Adora Shortridge and William Walker

Children are our future, as the song goes, and it turns out they are particularly vulnerable to extreme heat. Unfortunately, temperatures continue to rise as a result of climate change. Multiple factors put children at a higher risk of heat illness or exhaustion, including an absence of school heat policies and a lack of resources — in addition to children’s inability to identify when they are starting to overheat.

The good news is there are many solutions that we have identified through our research in South Phoenix, Arizona, that could be implemented to help reduce the impact of rising temperatures on children’s health.

Extreme heat is dangerous to children because their thermoregulatory systems are still being developed, which influences their ability to recognize how hot/cool their bodies actually are, and in turn negatively impacts their classroom performance, health, and cognitive abilities. 

With so many other challenges facing children today, we need to give educators the tools to create solutions that can help reduce the compounding effects of increasing temperatures.

The challenge is schools often lack the appropriate resources for preparing youth and staff to manage the negative impacts of extreme heat. Problems such as tight budgets, old infrastructure, and gaps in awareness of the issues and resources available prevent schools from taking action. 

Study Q&A:

Why does this project resonate with us as researchers, and what do solutions look like?

William Walker: The HeatReady Schools project and solutions presented resonate with me because as a sustainability student, I often see dismal discussions on the challenges we face in the world. I intend to shift the perception of these challenges to be inclusive of many solutions and stories to emerge. I like to think of the idea of “solutions-oriented stories” meaning that as sustainability practitioners, we initiate projects that recognize community needs and that we resolve problems while telling a story about it. When I see researchers tell a compelling story about their work, it inspires me to go the extra mile to engage those who otherwise would be overlooked. From the perspective of the project, we see that schools, children, and community members were overlooked in heat preparedness. For this reason, I will uplift their narratives and voices in an effort to drive tangible solutions to these communities. 

Adora Shortridge: The HeatReady Schools project feels like a culmination of the separate parts of my past aligning together as an opportunity to connect and grow with children. As a low-income, first generation student from a rural town in the middle of the desert, I resonate with the vision to focus on smaller, community scale action planning. Growing up playing school sports, I experienced heat exhaustion many times. The schools in my town also did not have access to researchers or resources in such a capacity as Phoenix does. My motivation to support schools and youth as the valley warms more each year is rooted in my past encounters with the dangers of extreme heat and yearning for richer educational opportunities. I am passionate about community-centered solutions and supporting Phoenix residents in preparing for a ferociously hot future!

Therefore, we are studying how schools in South Phoenix are adapting to high heat, and what they perceive are the most important elements of supporting schools to prepare for heat. 

Our vision is to create HeatReady Schools: Those that are increasingly able to identify, prepare for, mitigate, track, and respond to the negative impacts of schoolyard heat. In collaboration with the City of Phoenix’s HeatReady City program, our goal is to focus on community-level heat action plans that are correlated to city-wide plans to help boost the connectivity of mitigation and adaptation strategies. 

During our research, we conducted surveys and interviews and identified some potential solutions to the extreme heat that schools and communities experience. 

One of the most arduous challenges for schools experiencing extreme heat is funding for resources, such as shade coverage to increase adaptability. 

Our interviewees and survey panelists offered their recommended solution to this, which is applying for grants to build shade structures and partnering with funders who share like-minded goals and values. 

In addition to partnerships for funding, it would be beneficial for a HeatReadySchool to partner with local environmental and health organizations such as Arizona Sierra Club, HUE, Arizona Forward, Dignity Health, and Phoenix Children’s Hospital. In doing so, HeatReadySchools can access outside resources to fund school-wide initiatives, promote awareness of extreme heat, and educate community members about how heat affects them and how it will be resolved over time. A collaboration would also help alleviate and redistribute the weight of responsibilities that school staff carry already, creating more space for efforts to improve heat readiness within their school.

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.