Education

Long Beach teachers say heat grinds learning to a stop

Long Beach middle school teacher Johnna Lipuma says temperatures in her non-air conditioned room passed 90 degrees during a September, 2016 heat wave. She wants the school district to adopt written policies to help her school.
Long Beach middle school teacher Johnna Lipuma says temperatures in her non-air conditioned room passed 90 degrees during a September, 2016 heat wave. She wants the school district to adopt written policies to help her school.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC

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As they brace for this week’s expected heat wave, teachers at Washington Middle School near downtown Long Beach are calling attention to their school district’s lack of a written heat policy.

“A couple of weeks back, when we had that scorching week of temperatures over 100 degrees outside, it read 110 degrees in my classroom,” said Johnna Lipuma, a science teacher at the school.

Her campus is nearly a century old and most classrooms lack air conditioning. Her second floor room faces east and an adjacent building blocks any wind that might come through her windows.

Some teachers called in sick because they didn’t want to deal with the heat and parents kept their kids at home.

“We had kids have bloody noses, kids complaining of headaches, kids complaining, vomiting,” Lipuma said.

Unlike many other school districts, Long Beach Unified – the second largest district in L.A. County – does not have a written heat policy. Policies in other school districts describe the impact of heat on learning, explain how humidity makes heat more dangerous, and suggest specific actions at specific temperatures. Long Beach’s ad hoc approach to deal with the effects of heat in the classroom appears to be letting student learning fall through the cracks.

“We know of those types of complaints that we’ve gotten from multiple people throughout our district," said Long Beach Unified spokesman Chris Eftychiou. "The school site deals with it the best they can. It’s not ideal."

Lipuma said she received no substantive guidance from school administrators during the September heat wave. She'd like to see classes cancelled when the classroom temperature is over 90 degrees and those lost days added to the end of the school calendar. The district’s current approach, she said, is harming students and teachers.

In 2014, a heat wave in Long Beach prompted school officials to dismiss students early. Eftychiou didn’t say what the school district has done in schools differently since then to address heat problems.

In August of that same year, L.A. Unified directed an eleven-page heat policy bulletin to all employees. The document describes heat stress on the body, explains how humidity makes heat more dangerous, and directs staff to consider moving students to cooler rooms or other areas when classroom temperatures reach 91 degrees. Under L.A. Unified’s guidelines, a classroom temperature of 110 would have triggered immediate removal from the classroom to cooler places on campus, a call to the central office for guidance, and consideration of early dismissal.

San Diego Unified’s policies suggest teachers modify instruction on hot days, require centrally controlled air conditioning to be turned on when classroom temperatures reach 78 degrees, and require all schools to have a hot weather plan.

“The issue is not whether we have a policy or not. The issue is whether what do other school districts have in terms of air conditioning,” said Long Beach Unified’s Eftychiou.

Thirty-three of Long Beach Unified’s 84 schools don’t have campus-wide air conditioning. A solution for Washington Middle School, Eftychiou said, may come in a couple of years, if voters approve a $1.5 billion dollar school repair bond on next month’s Long Beach ballot.