Adapting Quebec’s Schools to Extreme Heat: A Necessity for Student Well-being

Adapting Quebec’s Schools to Extreme Heat: A Necessity for Student Well-being

In the borough of Park-Extension in Montreal and at Sinclair Laird, an EMSB school, the escalating heatwaves in Quebec are raising urgent concerns. Experts are sounding the alarm, emphasizing the critical need for schools to implement measures that ensure the well-being of their students. Charles Bonhomme, spokesperson for the David Suzuki Foundation, warns that the scorching temperatures in 2023 are not isolated events; they are poised to become increasingly frequent in the years ahead. Andréanne Brazeau, a climate policy analyst at Équiterre, echoes this sentiment, underscoring the unpredictable nature of these extreme temperature surges.

The English Montreal School Board (EMSB) leader, in light of a heat warning sweeping across southern Quebec, is urging the provincial government to fund the installation of air conditioning systems. Joe Ortona, the chair of the board overseeing 60 schools in the EMSB, lamented, “Nearly all of our schools lack air conditioning.” He further mentioned that while teachers can relocate their classes to cooler areas when classrooms become unbearably hot and keep a close eye on students’ well-being, there are limited options available to educators to combat the oppressive heat.

This year, Quebec has been experiencing a heatwave that serves as a stark reminder of how ill-prepared many schools are to handle such conditions. Most of these educational institutions were constructed over 50 years ago, and their outdated designs lack adequate ventilation and air conditioning systems. They often feature concrete courtyards, which exacerbate the heat problem.

While children may be less susceptible to the adverse effects of extreme heat compared to adults, prolonged exposure can still lead to exhaustion, manifesting as symptoms like fever, nausea, and fatigue. Furthermore, overheated classrooms can significantly impact students’ ability to focus and learn effectively, leading to compromised educational outcomes.

Dr. Mélissa Généreux, a specialist in public health and a professor at the University of Sherbrooke, underscores the psychological toll of excessive heat in classrooms. She emphasizes that as temperatures rise within classrooms, the well-being and psychological health of students are disproportionately affected. Simply closing schools during heatwaves is not a sustainable solution. Instead, Dr. Généreux advocates for proactive measures to minimize overheating and the implementation of effective monitoring systems.

There are various strategies available to mitigate the impact of extreme heat on schools. These include improved ventilation systems, the use of curtains or blinds on windows to block out direct sunlight, the introduction of green roofs to reduce heat absorption, and the option of conducting classes outdoors or online when indoor conditions are unbearable. However, the most effective and immediate solution is the installation of air conditioning systems.

Surprisingly, the Quebec Ministry of Education does not have comprehensive data on the percentage of schools in the province equipped with air conditioning. This information gap underscores the need for a more thorough assessment of the state of school infrastructure and the urgency of addressing extreme heat conditions. Education Minister Bernard Drainville has clarified that air conditioning was not the government’s preferred choice for the construction of new schools, favoring mechanical ventilation systems in 150 recent projects. While these systems offer a degree of comfort, they may fall short in addressing the rising temperatures associated with climate change. To address the pressing issue of extreme heat in schools, clear and standardized guidelines are essential. Dr. Généreux emphasizes the importance of defining what constitutes “too hot” for schools. Clarity on this matter is essential for determining when school closures or alternative measures should be implemented. A dedicated working group that draws upon scientific research can help establish harmonized guidelines that can be applied uniformly across schools in Quebec.