Op-Ed: California makes it too hard for schools to shield kids from extreme heat
As students across Los Angeles Unified School District returned to the classroom, their schools were getting hit with a record-breaking heat wave. I visited one of these schools a few weeks ago and walked around a relatively small playground and eating area. It was asphalted, uncovered — and very hot, even before the heat wave.
The barely 1,000-square-foot patch of asphalt, sandwiched between a classroom building and perimeter fence, seemed to be the right configuration for a shade sail, similar to the ones we see attached to restaurants, shops and other buildings open to the public. A Google search put a price tag for the fabric and attachments at a few hundred dollars, so I was baffled when I heard from the school’s principal that LAUSD estimated the project to be much more extensive, with a six-figure price tag and yearlong timeline.
As a school board member, I’ve heard the same exasperation from families and school communities calling for more shade on, and cooling of, campuses. As the effects of climate change get worse, the government’s ability to respond to life-threatening heat has to get a lot better.
Children shouldn’t be forced to learn and play in hot, asphalt-covered, fenced-in campuses, especially in neighborhoods that already lack park space.
Some of the problem is with regulations that delay ready solutions to the heat crisis. It turns out that putting up what seems like a simple shade structure on a school campus in California is not simple at all. To affix a shade sail to an existing building, the state legislature and regulatory agencies mandate using pre-approved materials for fire safety, setting them up a minimum distance from an existing building and using attachment buckles that can withstand very high wind thresholds. If you opt for a free-standing structure, you run into different, but equally arduous standards.
Of course schools should be built safely and we need quality-control measures so that we’re not replacing a tarp every few months. But when the alternative is sizzling-hot playground asphalt that can reach 145 degrees and the dangerous possibility of dehydration and heat stroke, does California really need to mandate a higher wind threshold for shade sails than Florida, which is routinely battered by hurricane-strength winds?
We saw during the COVID-19 pandemic that guidelines and codes can be adapted quickly in times of crisis to permit things such as remote instruction, better sanitizing and cleaning supplies and the use of certain temporary tent structures for testing and quarantine stations when schools reopened.
Similar creativity should be used now to address the emergency that severe heat poses for school communities.
For example, state codes could be adjusted so that safety standards for shade structures added to school campuses mirror the requirements for the ones found at restaurants and other buildings in the state. Wind threshold requirements could be recalculated to withstand the weather patterns of California, not other parts of the country.
There are 150 L.A. Unified schools in “very high need” of green space and shade, mostly in South and East Los Angeles, where parks are scarce.
Current state law mandates that the installation of many kinds of shade structures requires doing additional campus upgrades to bring schools up to current construction standards. This comes with a huge price tag. We could amend the code so that a shade structure is exempt from this kind of trigger, allowing schools to avoid millions of dollars in additional construction just to get the shade they need for their students.
Rough calculations suggest that with the current regulations, building shade structures to cover a portion of each elementary school playground would cost around $75 million. If we could reform the regulations, we could cut that cost in half.
Meanwhile, LAUSD is working on a strategy to fund a potential districtwide shade program by purchasing preapproved structures and adapting their foundations as needed for specific campuses. We are also looking to rent out space above playgrounds to solar providers, which will help offset the cost of these shade structures and save the district money in the long term.
LAUSD is also working on longer-term efforts to cool campuses, including planting more trees that will provide canopy shade, replacing asphalt with green space and building more shade structures in compliance with current standards. But none of this will happen overnight and our students need relief from the heat now.
As the climate crisis escalates, we need to confront the urgent hazard that intensifying heat poses on our school campuses. We have to rethink regulations that may have made sense decades ago but are still being applied to current conditions.
Schools must apply a high safety standard for even temporary additions to their campuses, but surely we can find a happy medium between buying a pop-up tent on Amazon and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to give our kids a thousand square feet of shade.
Nick Melvoin is vice president of the LAUSD Board of Education. @NickMelvoin
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