High heat shut down schools in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Pittsburgh on Thursday, forcing students and teachers to stay at home in the face of rising temperatures and inadequate air conditioning. In Detroit, the conditions led administrators to close that city’s schools three hours earlier than usual on Thursday, and similar plans were in place for Friday for the city’s 53,000 students.
In Pittsburgh, 40 schools in a district with more than 18,000 students shifted to remote learning, citing health concerns about sweltering classrooms, the district announced. In Grand Rapids, in western Michigan, home to 17,000 students, administrators canceled school for the remainder of the week as temperatures climbed to the 90s on Thursday.
The temperatures in some school buildings were “simply too warm,” the superintendent of schools, Leadriane Roby said in a statement. “That not only makes the learning environment a challenge, but it also raises a safety concern.”
Poorly cooled or heated school buildings in the United States is far from a new concern, but it is an intensifying worry as more school districts are grappling with aging infrastructure and the effects of climate change. Older buildings often lack central air-conditioning, and even if window air-conditioners are present, they can be ineffective in classrooms packed with dozens of children.
A report in 2020 from the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that roughly 41 percent of school districts need to update or replace heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems in at least half of their schools.
Many school districts across the Midwest complete the school year as late as mid-June, making heat a problem in the final weeks of classes.
A high-pressure system over the Great Lakes has been trapping hot air rising from the ground, resulting in temperatures that are 10 to 20 degrees above average. Highs in the upper 80s to low 90s from the Great Lakes into New England are expected on Thursday and Friday, and some areas in the region could come close to tying or even breaking daily records.
Some relief will come this weekend, beginning on Saturday in New England and bringing lower temperatures to the Great Lakes toward the end of the weekend.
While there were no immediate reports of students sickened by the heat, administrators said that they made the decisions pre-emptively to avoid health issues. In several districts, after-school activities and sports were also canceled.
In Pittsburgh, free meals were made available for pickup in more than a dozen locations on Thursday and Friday mornings to families who needed them.
Alan N. Johnson, the superintendent of the East Allegheny County schools in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, said in an interview on Thursday afternoon that he was closely monitoring the heat in his school buildings but had so far managed to keep them open.
Outside, the temperature was 86 degrees. Inside, he said, the second floor of the building that houses middle and high school students had reached 83 degrees as the school day was nearly complete.
Teachers were distributing bottled water to students and urging them to stay hydrated, Mr. Johnson said, while fans had been made available for use in the hottest classrooms. In order to help students stay comfortable, he said, the dress code was more loosely enforced.
While administrators had weighed whether to send students home for the day, they worried that many students, especially those from low-income families, might not have air-conditioning available at home, either. Shifting to remote learning was an option, but it also raised the concern that it could be a burden for working parents.
The school year was set to end in the district on Friday, and Mr. Johnson said that he was focused on keeping students safe.
“We’re no longer pushing educational attainment,” Mr. Johnson said. “We just have to be here. If we don’t show up, we have to make the day up, and we’re just trying to get through the day.”
Judson Jones contributed reporting.