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Heat Ready Schools program aims to keep kids safe on campus

Heat Ready Schools
Posted at 4:00 AM, Jun 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-01 14:42:30-04

PHOENIX — School may be out for summer break but in some districts, students will be right back in the classrooms by the end of July, just as we’re hitting some of our highest temperatures of the year.

Max Villagomez is a first-grader at Paideia Academies in Phoenix, who, like most kids his age, loves playing outside. There’s not much that will slow him down, not even the heat.

However, the sizzling temperatures we experience during at least a portion of the school year can impact the health and learning experience of students across Arizona.

The Heat Ready Schools program aims to mitigate the heat risk by helping schools create a safer environment for their students.

Jennifer Vanos is an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and one of the lead researchers for the Heat Ready Schools program.

Vanos says they worked with a variety of school administrators and community members to figure out what makes a school "heat ready." They asked questions regarding heat mitigation, heat illness, and what school administrators, nurses, teachers, coaches, etc. were experiencing when it comes to the heat.

“From all of that, we were able to come up with about 30 recommendations for what we think makes a heat-ready school,” says Vanos.

The Heat Ready Scorecard is designed to help school administrators gauge their school’s heat preparedness, and find areas for improvement.

Paideia Academies is one of ten schools currently participating in the Heat Ready Schools program.

Brian Winsor, the Executive Director and Founder of Paideia Academies, says one of the key goals for his school was to create a safer and more usable outdoor space for their scholars.

“We planted a bunch of Mesquite and Palo Verde that will grow eventually, so we eat outside. When they play, we have this, the North Forest, when they play out here they’re actually running on the rocks and playing. We have a farm pump — we wanted water available to them in a natural way. A lot more shade to be under. We shifted a lot of our playtime to before school, and we have a sanctuary where they can just go and sit in the shade,” says Winsor.

Being heat ready goes beyond making structural changes, though. According to Chelcee Pullam, the School Medical Technician, they also consider the temperature outside as they make plans for recess.

“So right now what we’re doing, if it gets about 95 degrees or above, I’ll be outside with the scholars, we’ll put up some canopies and just provide a little extra shade for everybody. We’ll have a cooler with wet towels.”

Pullam says they are also teaching their students how to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illness. Pullam says these changes have already made a significant difference, reducing the percentage of heat-related symptoms and sickness.

The Heat Ready Schools program leaders say becoming heat ready looks different for every school, but the ultimate goal of keeping kids safe and adapting to a warming climate is the same for everyone.

Heat Ready Schools project coordinator Mary Munoz Encinas says they want this to become the standard for schools.

“In Arizona, we cannot escape the heat. So I would love to see this implemented Valley-wide, and then maybe adjusted to go state by state so that everyone who is vulnerable to the heat risk can be protected,” says Munoz Encinas.

As the program grows, developers hope to create an official Heat Ready certification that schools can earn.

To see if your school is heat ready, or to learn more about how to participate in the Heat Ready Schools program, click here.