Excessive Heat and Humidity in Rhode Island Leads to Widespread School Closures

Providence, Pawtucket among 20 local education agencies affected, with 12 dismissing students early.

a stock photo of a student holding a personal fan in front of a chalkboard

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PROVIDENCE — With a large black SUV with AC on full blast standing by for when heat got too oppressive, five school food service workers were working underneath a blue tarp at the Bucklin Kitchen on Daboll Street when Claudia Morales approached.

Morales was there to pick up three boxed lunches for two of her children — a high school junior and senior — and one grandchild — a kindergartner, Thursday because the Providence Public School District (PPSD) closed 19 of its 37 schools due to excessive heat. Providence joined 19 other local education agencies that either closed or dismissed classes early due to the weather.

“At home, I wasn’t prepared,” she said when asked why she came to the food site. “One of my kids goes to Classical and today was supposed to be her first day. She hasn’t even started yet.”

“I didn’t mind the decision, I think [officials] made the right call,” she continued. “I think maybe they’ll do it again tomorrow.”

PPSD announced schools would be closed Thursday on Wednesday night due to concerns around the health and safety of students and staff.

“The Providence Public School District (PPSD) is committed to the safety and well-being of our students, staff, and families,” said PPSD Public Information Officer Jay Wegimont in a statement Wednesday night. “We understand the challenges that extreme heat conditions can bring, and we appreciate families’ cooperation and understanding.”

The district “will continue to monitor the weather,” according to its announcement. The National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory through 8 p.m. Friday, noting heat index values — what the temperature feels like when high humidity combines with high temperatures — of up to 98.

Pawtucket announced via Twitter Wednesday night that all schools would be closed Thursday.

“Due to the extreme heat forecast tomorrow, there will be no school Thursday, September 7, 2023,” a Tweet from the Pawtucket School District said. “12 Month employees to report to work. Employees, any questions contact your immediate supervisor.”

Meteorologist Bryce Wilson at the National Weather Service in Norton, Massachusetts, said temperatures in Providence could hit the mid-90s Thursday, but that’s not where the real danger lies.

“The big issue is it’s not just going to be hot,” he said. “It’s going to be humid. We have dew points in the mid-70s.”

“When you have moisture in the air you can’t sweat and cool off,” he said. “That’s why it’s more dangerous than a dry heat.”

Ashley Cullinane, a spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Education, said the weather has led to cancellations regionally.

“There have been reports of the heat impacting districts across New England, so it’s important to note that this issue impacts schools beyond Providence,” Cullinane said in an email, “many of which do not have properly electrical capacity to house cooling units and systems.”

Closures and early dismissals across R.I.

Officials with the Rhode Island Department of Education listed the 19 other local education agencies which closed schools or ended classes early due to the heat and humidity. The list included: Blessed Sacrament School in Providence, LaSalle Academy in Providence, all schools in Pawtucket, the Met East Bay School in Newport, William M. Davies Career and Technical High School in Lincoln, and the Rhode Island Transition Academy at Roger Williams University.

Officials dismissed students early in: Barrington, Burrillville, Cranston, Coventry, Cumberland, East Greenwich, East Providence, Johnston, Scituate, Smithfield, West Warwick, and Woonsocket.

“I have visited several of our schools and have found that classrooms are certainly warm and buildings with classrooms on second floors are even warmer in temperature,” Cumberland Superintendent Philip D. Thornton said in a message to families sent Wednesday night. “To accommodate for the warm weather, administrators and teachers are making adjustments to the physical education classes, recess schedule and providing alternative teaching areas for students as needed.”

“Water is easily accessible to everyone. However, even with these adjustments, the weather forecast for Thursday calls for even warmer temperatures.”

Age of schools a factor in capital

It’s no secret that school buildings in Providence tend to be old and often lack air conditioning, with 14 buildings being over 40 years old. According to a 2022 report by Downes Construction Group commissioned by PPSD, the average age of schools in Providence is about 70 years old.

“We know our facilities are old/outdated,” said Maribeth Calabro, president of the Providence Teachers Union, in a text message. “We also know how much money is required to upgrade, update and in some cases rebuild 21st century schools.”

She said that a $235 million bond approved in November by voters would provide some of the necessary upgrades and “make it so we don’t have to close 19 schools.” According to the Downes Report, there are over $900 million worth of infrastructure deficiencies in Providence schools.

Given current conditions though, Calabro said the decision to call off school Thursday was the right one.

“State and District leadership made the difficult but appropriate decision to close schools without air conditioning,” she said. “Due to the excessive heat, classrooms were unbearably hot and created unhealthy situations for students and staff.”

Chanda Womack, the executive director of the Alliance of Rhode Island Southeast Asians for Education, was more blunt in her assessment.

“It’s hot and the schools don’t have AC,” Womack said via text. “[PPSD] Buildings are trash. It’s simple.”

Providence Public Schools District School Committee Member Ty’Relle Stephens said that he visited several schools Wednesday.

“I was definitely sweating in some of the schools I visited yesterday,” he said. “I definitely believe that a lot of our schools need to be upgraded and do not have air conditioning.”

For Morales though, the fact that so many schools have no air conditioning makes her question district leaders’ priorities.

“They’re not paying attention to the children,” she said.

PPSD has been working on improvising buildings, promising to invest more than $50 million into facility repairs and improvements by 2030. Slightly more than 7%, about $31 million, of the department’s fiscal year 2024 budget is set to go toward school building maintenance costs.

Cullinane said that Providence schools also have a $600 million building improvement plan that aims to update the technology and functionality of school structures.

“After opening just one new school in the last 14 years, Providence is slated to open three new and like-new schools this year under the intervention,” she said. “Projects are expected to receive an estimated 91% reimbursement by the State.”

On top of the list for improvements is 85- year old Mount Pleasant High School, which has around $151 million in deficiencies according to the Downes Report. The school may face demolition, refurbishment, or a combination of the two by 2025. Costs on that project — starting at $120 million — will be covered with money from the $235 million bond.

For Morales though, she said this is a learning opportunity, this time not so much for the students.

“I hope PPSD learns from it,” she said. “And maybe they’ll fix the ACs.”

Rhode Island Current is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Rhode Island Current maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Janine L. Weisman for questions: info@rhodeislandcurrent.com. Follow Rhode Island Current on Facebook and Twitter.

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