Is it really too hot for schools to be open? The author finds out the hard way.

By the time you read this, Columbus City Schools will have closed for its second straight day this week due to heat. It is possible they will close for a third day, as well.

Whenever a school system closes for inclement weather, there is a communal groan largely made up of three groups of people: parents who have to scramble to find guardianship with a day’s notice, employees of businesses that may have to navigate roaming teenagers with nothing to do and random adults on social media complaining about how soft today’s kids are. The first group is understandable. The second group is an emotional reflection of the cost of doing business. The third group is just annoying. And because I hate being annoyed, I was compelled to action — or, rather, science.

As a citizen who empathizes with students and teachers who have to negotiate education in school systems rotting from neglect, I wondered what it would feel like to sit and try to learn in a Columbus City Schools classroom with no air conditioning. Aware that no school would let me sit in a classroom for the express purpose of pointing out how bad its conditions might be, I did some research, talked to some affected parties, and finally sat in a hot car and tried to learn something for 45 minutes.

The rules were simple: to sit in the car with the window closed and no A/C running. I also couldn’t listen to the radio or take breaks, and I had to be reading a non-fiction book that is new to me. The experiment had to happen on a day when school was closed in order to gauge the conditions to which all of these so-called “soft” kids would have been subjected.

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

0-15 minutes

“There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”

-Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

As a syllabus, I opt for the freshly published Malcolm Gladwell book, Talking to Strangers. I have enjoyed Gladwell’s work in the past, though I find I often have to take my time with the material depending on the subject. He is a storyteller in the way a history teacher you almost like is: ever-ready with a gregarious opening line, followed by the mickey of a fistful of history tales that need connecting, and maybe no time soon. It is a fair choice for this experiment. While not a cheerleader of ancient histories, I am a glutton for connections. I know the Gladwell will pay off. It is only a question of when. It is definitely a solid stand-in for being in a classroom for a while.

I try not to read too much into the fact that the introduction of Gladwell’s book begins with the phrase “Step out of the car!” Fifteen minutes into this experiment, I most assuredly want to. The quote references the moment at which things went irreversibly wrong in the Sandra Bland case, in which a black woman was pulled over by Texas police officer Brian Encinia for a minor traffic infraction and three days later ended up dead in a jail cell. I consider the nature of oppression in that deadly exchange, and the easy joke that comes to me is how I am beginning to feel oppressed by heat in my car. Of course, I can get out anytime I want. Nobody is making me sit in the driver’s seat except those jerks on the internet who claim they could endure the indignity that comes from lip-sweating one’s way through a reading of the juxtaposition of the Black Lives Matter and the veritable glut of wars in 16th-century Europe.

My car odometer reads 91 degrees. My scalp is flawless, and yet my head begins to itch.

15:01-20 minutes

“When they give you lined paper, write the other way.”

-Fahrenheit 451 

I am on record on both sides of this debate. I have made a case that students should go to school in adverse weather conditions when snowy streets seemed reasonably passable. I have also made the case that a classroom shouldn’t be a sweat lodge. In reflection, I have been both right and wrong on this issue before. Sitting in my car trying to parse out the first chapter — a study in Cuban espionage — I am doing no such waffling: It is hotter than capital-H Hell and I’m starting to get frustrated with Gladwell’s avuncular tone. Just give me the answer, teach. It’s getting hot in here, and because I’m pretending to be in school, I’m not allowed to take off all my clothes. I despise myself for accessing a Nelly reference in 2019, or ever, not to mention the ease with which it fits so cleanly into my life in this moment.

20:01-25 minutes

“The problem in our country isn't with books being banned, but with people no longer reading. You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”

-Fahrenheit 451

A retraction: It is wrong to say a school has closed due to heat. A school closes because it cannot address the heat. In Columbus, this means that most schools do not have air conditioning. Administrators and elected officials in the business of education will tell you that schools do not have air conditioning because they do not have the funding. They say this with a straight face while they spend tens of thousands of dollars each year on professional retreats for board members. I am left to assume that the agenda for such events does not include how to fundraise for school features that would preserve the safety of their students.

Of course, funding school infrastructure wouldn’t be the Sisyphean task it is if the board did not circumvent the well-being of students for appeasing a city council that, as a matter of course, denies our school system funding that should be coming from the taxation of businesses, developers and the acres of property they consume. When multi-million dollar companies move here and don’t have to pay taxes, that is money not going to schools. When the city prioritizes civic projects, those are resources not being delivered to schools. Yes, things like soccer arenas are in a different pot than, say air conditioning for public schools, but it’s only that way because the people lobbying for them set the terms.

25:01-30 minutes

“Those who don't build must burn.”

-Fahrenheit 451 

Math lesson: If the average school needed $1 million to install, retrofit and otherwise provide air conditioning to all 118 Columbus City Schools, how much money would it cost?

Answer: $118 million. Even in this heat I can do that math.

There are factors to consider (maintenance, installation schedules, ongoing utilities), but $1 million per school is a good place to start a conversation. Considering CCS’s budget is around $928 million, adding $118 million to the pile isn’t pocket change. That said, the city — politicians, businesses, and citizens — were able to secure funding for a new soccer stadium in a matter of months. As a city, Columbus gives away tens of millions of dollars every year in tax abatements. Gentrification and its cousin, development, are killing public schools here. And the stewards of such resources — the school board — need a complete reboot. While voting is hardly the only solution here, I’ll do my five-minute part by voting for anyone who isn’t an incumbent when elections happen in November. There are several people who haven’t done it before. I’m game if it means we’re at least looking at the well-being of students and not which resort will host the next administrative retreat.

30:01-31 minutes

“There was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.”

-Fahrenheit 451 

I consider that most of the black students in Columbus attend CCS institutions. Like many public school systems, CCS has become code in certain quarters for “lesser education.” A part of me wonders if some of the outcry about school closings takes its cue from the ancient notion that black people are able to physically endure more suffering than other people. Such thinking almost did irreparable damage to Serena Williams while she was giving birth. “Suck it up” is an old idea, and it means something different depending to whom you apply it. Sure, no one meant it that way. I’m sure it’s just the impending heatstroke talking.

After a whiplash transition to Hitler in the second chapter, I can feel myself starting to fade. Gladwell is as accessible as he has ever been, but the history is starting to pile up in my head. And because he does not settle for the obvious tale, I am largely attempting to process all new information. This seems especially unfair given the Bland introduction, with which I was entirely familiar. The heat makes the education seem cruel. Gladwell is also black, and I am struggling to understand why he is doing this to me.

My odometer says it is 91 degrees, but there is no way I’m basting at the same temperature as I was 15 minutes ago.

32-35 minutes

“Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.”

-Fahrenheit 451 

Inclement weather in association with school closings used to just mean it was too cold to walk to a bus stop, or that the roads had too much ice or snow to be considered safe. These conditions make sense to most people. No one enjoys being cold, and most people surveyed would rather be too hot than too cold. Heat always seems like something you can do something about: have a drink, sit in front of a fan, take a swim or a shower. But cold — cancel school cold — is just bone chill and desolation and the breaking away of frostbitten toes. No matter how hot it gets, parts of your body won’t ever just melt off of your bones. If you’re too cold, however, you could literally shake loose a finger. Everybody understands and accepts the danger of cold. We struggle with the big deal of heat.

Kids today are not soft. They witness more violence, see more sex and are inundated with more bad news per day than any newspaper could convey as a matter of course, and that’s regardless of where they go to school. That’s just what comes with being a kid in the 21st century.

I note observations by some that kids play outside in the same heat with no problem. I also note that their sample size is a fraction of the student population for which a city must account, and that they have not observed those same kids in that heat for six straight hours. They also don’t mention that those kids have the freedom to find shade or make a trip to a carry-out or remove their shirts or otherwise compensate for the heat that they can’t in a classroom. 90 degrees on my porch isn’t the same 90 degrees you experience in a classroom, and it sure as hell isn’t the same 90 degrees I’m currently experiencing in my front seat. Not to mention that no one is asking me to pass a standardized test in my car while I’m at it.

I haven’t given up on the book entirely, but I cannot stop looking at the clock.

36-40 minutes

“I ate them like salad, books were my sandwich for lunch, my tiffin and dinner and midnight munch. I tore out the pages, ate them with salt, doused them with relish, gnawed on the bindings, turned the chapters with my tongue! Books by the dozen, the score and the billion. I carried so many home I was hunchbacked for years. Philosophy, art history, politics, social science, the poem, the essay, the grandiose play, you name 'em, I ate 'em.”

-Fahrenheit 451 

Fact: Schools didn’t used to close for heat when I was a child.

Fact: Heat isn’t what it used to be.

The world is demonstrably warmer than it used to be 30 years ago. That’s not fake news or an agenda or scientist trolling. That’s a fact. By the end of the last century, the world had never been hotter on record. The historic average in Columbus for Oct. 1 is 71 degrees. As I sat in my car trying to figure out why Neville Chamberlain was duped by Adolf Hitler, it was 20 degrees higher than that. Anybody who recalls sitting in a Columbus classroom in that kind of heat more than 15 years ago is a liar.

41-45 minutes

“It was a pleasure to burn.”

-Fahrenheit 451

I couldn’t be more thirsty or angry or wet. My body feels like a hot wing. I have stopped reading the Gladwell book entirely.

Imagine trying to do something you actually like under such conditions. Now imagine the task as something you don’t like, say, algebra — something you’re expected to not only encounter but actually learn. Now imagine that you don’t have a choice in whether or not you get to engage the material. Now imagine I wake you up at 6:30 a.m. to put you on a bus to go to a place to learn the things you don’t really want to. Imagine you will be in that place for six or seven hours. Now imagine it on a 90 degree day with no air conditioning, or a window that can only be cracked due to security reasons, or under the spitting warmth of a single teacher-bought fan for a room with 30 other people who often need to be cajoled into learning the thing that you don’t want to know.

Anybody who posts that kids shouldn’t be let out of school because of a lack of air conditioning probably isn’t typing that outdoors. Such bon mots are traditionally the bread and butter of wizened grandparents who invented the “uphill both ways” school commute, but thanks to social media it has become a rallying cry for people’s gut reactions to anything. Such social interactions are an unavoidable reality, so I’m not here to sweep the ocean back out to sea. But this hot take that it can’t be too hot to close a school for safety concerns can go die in a fire, or the glowing embers of my backseat.

Schools don’t close because kids are soft, or even because it’s too hot outside. They close because they’re neglected by adults who refuse to make them safe to learn in.