August 17, 2023

With increasing heat waves and school days, what are public schools in New Mexico to do?


On the hottest two days in July in Las Cruces, when temperatures soared to 109 and 108 on July 19 and 20 respectively, some students in the district rode home in the middle of the afternoon on buses that lacked air conditioning.

Parents complained and the Las Cruces School Board of Education President Teresa Tenorio rode a few school buses herself to experience what the children were going through. The children who suffered were not only on buses that lacked air conditioning in the excessive heat. Parents also complained of buses that have air conditioning but said the circulation is not strong enough to keep all the children on the bus cool in the record high heat.

“Buses that do have air conditioning may not function optimally,” Tenorio said during a Las Cruces Public School Board meeting on Tuesday.

The New Mexico Public Education Department made an emergency rule on August 4, in response to a problem the LCPS discovered this summer. Because of state rules designed, in part, to reduce carbon emissions, school bus drivers in New Mexico are not allowed to turn on the ignition during periods when the bus idles. This meant the drivers sat in record breaking temperatures on buses without air conditioning waiting for students to board. It also meant the buses were uncomfortably hot when the students boarded because the bus didn’t have enough time to cool off, even with air conditioning.

Kelly Pearce, spokesperson for NMPED, said the agency rule was also designed for school safety because quieter boarding and deboarding is safer for children.

NMPED’s emergency order allows buses to idle with the ignition and air conditioning running during a heat advisory or National Weather Service excessive heat warning. Pearce said a public comment period and a public hearing will be held within 180 days of August 4 to adopt a permanent rule.

For some parents, the problem is that students are starting the school year earlier than ever. During the 2023 legislature, HB 130, which increases instructional time across the state, passed the legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed it into law. It went into effect on July 1.

Tenorio told NM Political Report that adding the instructional hours means that New Mexico schools are instructing children up to 180 school days, which has become the national norm, although some states have fewer school days.

Tenorio said this school year is not the first one with 180 school days in it for LCPS. The Las Cruces school board foresaw that the state would likely add instructional time to the school calendar a few years ago, she said. She said the board also heard from principals who recommended that the board add more instructional time. Because of that, LCPS School Board voted to add 10 days to the school calendar two years ago, which made this year the second year LCPS is starting in late July.

“Their observation of kids coming back [after the COVID-19 remote learning experience] was that they needed more socialization and academic instruction,” Tenorio said.

STS, the Kansas City-based company that contracts with LCPS to operate the district’s bus system, didn’t respond to a request for comment but LCPS Deputy Superintendent for Operations and Leadership Gabe Jacquez said during the school board meeting on Tuesday that STS has only three buses currently serving students in the district that lack air conditioning and that those bus drivers provide towels and bottles of water for the students. He also said the district will receive 11 new buses by the next school year, which will replace the last remaining buses in the system that lack air conditioning. But, New Mexico public schools are faced with the problem of how to educate and transport children through record-breaking heat for the foreseeable future.

Connor Dennhardt, meteorologist with the El Paso National Weather Service, based in Santa Teresa, told NM Political Report that in Las Cruces “we break more record highs than record lows by far.” He said the last record low set in Las Cruces was October 28, 2020, when the temperature dropped to 24 degrees. But since October 28, 2020, Las Cruces has had 51 record highs.

“Not just in the summer. It spreads out throughout the year. Most occurred in the summer… We’re breaking record breaking highs way more consistently,” Dennhardt said.

This summer Las Cruces had the longest run of 100 plus degree days in recorded history, which goes back 131 years. Dennhardt said New Mexico State University has been tracking and recording weather and climate in Las Cruces since the 1800s.

Other cities and towns across the state also broke temperature records in July, the hottest on record for the state for much of the state of New Mexico.

Dennhardt said the reason for the consistent record breaking heat is two-fold: global climate change and urbanization and he said this is a nation-wide, and global, trend. He said more pavement increases solar radiation, which increases urban heat and climate change causes warming. In addition, children and teenagers are more susceptible to heat-related climate change because their bodies are still developing. Researchers at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia University Irving Medical Center published a paper in 2018 about the adverse effects of climate change-related heat waves and other climate-related disasters on children’s bodies.

But, Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, said school districts “are facing enormous pressure to have kids in school more.”

Holland said the balanced calendar, which is when students start school in midsummer but have more breaks in the school year, is the likely direction for most school districts. Las Cruces is one district already on a balanced calendar. Holland said Las Cruces is not the only one in the state.

State Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, who chairs the Public School Capital Outlay Oversight Task Force and the Senate Education Committee, said most schools in the southern part of the state have air conditioning but many northern districts rely on evaporative coolers.

But, Ellen Bernstein, president of Albuquerque Teachers Federation, said a lot of older schools have evaporative coolers, not refrigerated air.

“We really need to invest in modernizing infrastructure in school buildings for both heat and air,” Bernstein told NM Political Report.

She used her own experience of having an evaporative cooler in her house as an example.

“It can cool down the outside air by 15 degrees if it’s not humid,” she said. “But if it’s 100 degrees outside, I’ve got a swamp cooler that, at best, gets it down to 85 degrees and then you get 25 to 35 kids coming in.”

But, she said replacing evaporative coolers is “extraordinarily expensive.”

The largest school district

Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest district in New Mexico, must cool 19 million square feet in the summer months when children are in school. Though APS didn’t start this year until August 3, it has the oldest schools in the state and 70 percent of the district relies on evaporative coolers to keep the buildings cool, Gabriella Durán Blakey, APS chief operations officer, told NM Political Report.

She said APS has contingency plans in place to move a classroom if one becomes too hot; the schools can also move a portable cooling unit into the room. She said the district prioritizes medically fragile students and every classroom has a fan.

Durán Blakey said the district has invested money from a $20 million COVID-19 relief fund to upgrade the district’s HVAC infrastructure. She said the work should be complete by next year. She said the district has also changed some of its systems and keeps them on longer at night to try to keep as much cool air coming into the buildings as possible to keep them cool during daytime hours.

She said the district has 25,000 air conditioning units, but with such a large system, there is a probability that there will be mechanical failure somewhere in the system every day. Another challenge the district faces is that August is typically monsoon season in the state, when evaporative coolers are not as efficient, Durán Blakey said.

She said the district is in conversation with other school districts in the nation, such as Phoenix, which regularly faces temperatures above 100 degrees in the summer. But she also noted that during the early part of the pandemic, schools that rely on refrigerated air were the concern because they “are not so good at bringing in fresh air.”

Durán Blakey said APS also has buses that lack air conditioning. She said APS has installed filtered water bottle stations to help students stay hydrated while on buses and in school.

What can the state do?

Pearce said that when districts notify PED that classrooms are too hot or too cold, the agency works with the affected school to troubleshoot and problem solve mechanical or logistical issues.

She said in an email that the state requires classrooms to be within a temperature range of 68 degrees to 75 degrees Fahrenheit with full occupancy.

“Every student needs to be comfortable and safe at school. For learning to happen, their basic needs must be met first, which includes having classrooms maintained at an appropriate temperature,” she said through email.

Soules said the legislature has been talking about the problem of climate change-related heat waves and keeping children in a cool learning environment for “several years.”

“But not so directly as now,” he said.

He also said that “extended learning time is here to stay.”

But, he added, that while he worries about children riding hot buses, children could be just as hot at home as they are in school and in some cases, could be better off in school when there is air conditioning and teachers and administrators to keep watch, making sure students stay hydrated. Schools also have medical staff on campus if a child requires aid.

Soules said school districts can purchase new cooling and heating systems for their schools through capital outlay funds but it’s up to the districts to set their own capital outlay projects.

But for many school improvement projects, districts also have to raise matching funds to receive funds from the state and that can be difficult to raise at the local level, Holland said.

The other possibility is for a district to ask the voters to approve a bond, but that requires running a bond campaign and can mean a lag time of two-to-three years before the school district receives the money if the voters approve it.

Holland said there needs to be a change to the funding structure.

“It will fall on educators to buy fans and [portable] swamp coolers to make do until something changes in the funding structure,” she said.

Soules said another remedy may be that school districts, in the future, will build “heat wave days” into their calendar, much like schools have snow days built in now.

“Certainly in local districts with a 110 heat wave, the superintendent could suspend as they would for snow days…Lots of districts have late start days when it snows but melts by noon. They could also have early release if it’s 105. It’s in their purview for their decision making,” Soules said.