Minority Students Feel The Heat: When Temps Rise, Performance Falls

Graphic By Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

By Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

New research finds that higher temperatures and heat exposure can harm children’s learning across the globe. However, in the US, researchers found that only Black and Hispanic children are affected by this trend. The researchers believe that minority students’ lack of access to air conditioning both at school and at home allows heat to take a toll on their ability to learn. Heather McTeer Toney, the national field director for Moms Clean Air Force, says that climate change is a connecting theme for most social issues facing minority communities, “We could go on and on, talking about different social dynamics that disproportionately impact communities of color. For every single one of them, we can make a link to climate.”

Why This Matters: A 2019 study showed that predominantly non-white school districts receive about $23 billion less on average than predominantly white school districts. This lack in funding is anything but coincidental, a result of historical discrimination and redlining that discouraged banks and governments from investing in communities of color. The achievement gap between students of color and white students is caused by a variety of systemic factors. Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to widen this gap. Similarly, these communities will be hit the hardest by climate change and will be left without adequate access to air conditioning at home and in school, impacting learning and leaving Black and Hispanic students at a disadvantage.

Hot by Design

These results add to the national dialogue about school funding and access to education and support the greater academic consensus that climate change will hit minority communities the hardest. The research team examined more than 270 million test scores from 3rd to 8th-grade students from 2009 to 2015. They found that the more 80+ degree days students experienced, the lower they scored, but only if that student was Black or Hispanic or came from a low-income household.  The researchers also discovered a specific correlation between lower test scores and hot days spent in the classroom.

The researchers believe this is a result of historic underfunding of predominantly non-white schools and neighborhoods; co-author of the study, Dr. Joshua Goodman of Boston University explained, “The same amount of outdoor heat makes certain classrooms hotter, just because their buildings are of lower quality. Low-income students are in school buildings that have worse HVAC and ventilation systems.” Dr. Goodman, in a previous study, had estimated that about 5% of the racial achievement gap could be attributed to high temperatures.  Plus, minority communities have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, lack access to healthcare, and are under-represented in COVID treatment and vaccine trials, thereby exacerbating the problem.

The lack of quality climate control systems is due to a lack of investment in Black and Hispanic communities’ education. The researchers also observed that redlining resulted in lower quality infrastructure, a lack of green space, and an abundance of heat-absorbing pavement in these same neighborhoods with low scores. All of these factors have contributed to elevated average temperatures in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, even those directly neighboring predominantly white neighborhoods. In Richmond, VA, researchers found that formerly redlined communities were 5 degrees hotter on average during the summer. Medical research has shown that even a difference of 2.5 degrees during a heatwave can increase the risk of death, heart attacks, and asthma attacks.

As the earth warms due to climate change, all of these disparities will continue to widen. Black and Hispanic communities will warm faster exacerbating the disadvantages that these communities face. Experts are excited, however, about the evolving dialogue around climate change, which has begun to place a focus on racial equity and social justice.

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