Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

Do WA schools need air conditioning? Some teachers think so after this heatwave

caption: An empty classroom is shown on the first day of school at Mount View Elementary school on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Seattle.
Enlarge Icon
An empty classroom is shown on the first day of school at Mount View Elementary school on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021, in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

The unusually early heatwave is causing stifling temperatures in some Western Washington classrooms without air conditioning.

Shannon McCann, a special education teacher in Federal Way and the president of the district’s teachers union, said the heat in her classroom and others across the region rose to unbearable levels Monday.

"None of us are doing our best when we’re sitting there overheated,” McCann said. “It is sweltering.”

All morning, fellow teachers texted McCann pictures of their classroom thermostats. By 11 a.m. Monday, the temperature in a classroom at Woodmont K-8, part of the Federal Way School District, was already 81 degrees. An hour later, it rose to 83. A classroom in Tacoma even hit 96 degrees, McCann said.

It comes at a particularly inopportune time: Some students are taking state standardized tests this week.

Exams are always stressful, McCann said, but this year is worse as teachers and students struggle to bounce back from the pandemic.

“We encourage our students to focus and try their best on this computer test,” she said. “But it is upwards of 80, 90 degrees in a classroom, so it adds another factor.”

This problem isn’t unique to Washington. Many classrooms across the United States lack air conditioning or are in desperate need of upgrades to their HVAC systems.

A 2020 U.S. Government Accountability Office study found just over half of public school districts need to update or replace multiple systems like plumbing, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning.

And heat can have a big impact on learning: Another 2020 study published by the Nature Human Behavior journal revealed that students scored increasingly worse on standardized tests each school day where the temperature rose above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

McCann said teachers are getting creative trying to cool down their classrooms. They’re shutting the shades, turning off the lights, bringing in fans, and even putting butcher paper over the windows to block out the sun.

But as climate change heats up the planet and hot weather becomes more common in the region, McCann said Washington schools need to invest in cooling systems.

“We still have a good month of learning left,” McCann said. “We can’t just lose a month of learning because schools don’t have good air temperature."

On Monday, the National Weather Service reported a high of 88 at Sea-Tac Airport, just a few miles north of Federal Way. Temperatures in the mid-80s are forecast into the week.

Why you can trust KUOW