Hot under the collar: How heat prevents school kids from learning

A new article in the South African Medical Journal recommends that SA schools should be safeguarded against the health and educational impacts of heat.

Changes in climate affect children and adolescents in unique ways – and this is felt most acutely in “non-brick” school infrastructure in SA.

University of the Witwatersrand scientist Matthew Chersich, in a guest editorial in the South African Medical Journal, says schools should be safeguarded against the health and educational impacts of heat.

In the editorial – titled “Climate change and adolescents in South Africa: The role of youth activism and the health sector in safeguarding adolescents’ health and education” – Chersich said today’s youth will inherit a world made hazardous by greenhouse gases.

He said in SA there are around 10-million adolescents (aged between 10 and 19 years), who make up about 20% of the country’s population.

“They already face a gamut of challenges, ranging from HIV infection, sexual and physical violence, teenage pregnancy and substance use to poverty, inequality and gangsterism. Additionally, many schools are unsafe, with overcrowded classrooms and high levels of environmental toxins, and educational outcomes are poor,” he said.

Chersich said the effects of climate change on adolescents, and the effects of heat exposure in particular, were not fully appreciated.

“In many schools, classrooms are made out of converted shipping containers or prefabricated sheeting with corrugated iron roofs. Most container classrooms have poor insulation, little natural ventilation and as many as 50 children in a class, who themselves generate a considerable heat load,” he said.

In one study in Johannesburg, which has a relatively mild climate, temperatures reached as high as 47.5°C in the containers and the large majority of students reported experiencing heat-health symptoms every day, including drowsiness, poor concentration and thirst.

“These impacts will be even greater in hotter regions of the country, such as [the] Northern Cape and Limpopo provinces,” said Chersich.

He said in classes with poor ventilation, levels of carbon dioxide or stuffiness rose together with temperature, causing children to experience symptoms characteristic of “sick building syndrome”. These symptoms affected concentration and learning, and even school attendance and rates of asthma attacks.

Chersich said opening windows was a key means of removing heat and carbon dioxide. “However, in towns and cities with high pollution levels, such as Witbank, one of the most polluted towns in the world, doing so would increase exposure to outdoor air pollution,” he warned.

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