Extreme heat is closing schools, increasing learning gaps worldwide

Extreme heat is closing schools, increasing learning gaps worldwide

In Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, soaring temperatures have recently made it very difficult for students to focus on their studies. This past week, temperatures have exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), causing significant discomfort in classrooms.

Hena Khan, a grade nine student, expressed her concerns, saying, “There is no real education in schools in this punishing heat. Teachers can’t teach, and students can’t concentrate. Our lives are at risk.” Hena’s situation is not unique. Over 40 million students across parts of Asia and North Africa have been affected by similar conditions, leading to school closures.

The ongoing heatwaves are a result of climate change, mainly due to the burning of fossil fuels which increases average temperatures. This phenomenon has sparked a debate among government authorities and public health experts worldwide on whether to keep schools open in such harsh conditions or close them to protect students from the heat.

Closing schools has its drawbacks, especially in developing countries. Approximately 17% of school-aged children globally are out of school, with the numbers being much higher in less developed regions. For instance, nearly a third of children in sub-Saharan Africa do not attend school compared to just 3% in North America. Experts worry that the heat could worsen educational disparities between developed and developing nations, and even within different regions of the same country.

In countries like South Sudan and India, schools have already been forced to close when temperatures reached extreme highs. Similarly, in Bangladesh, schools had to be closed and then reopened, only to be shut down again as temperatures hit 43°C (109°F).

The problem is compounded in schools that lack adequate facilities such as fans or proper ventilation. “Many of the country’s schools don’t have fans, the ventilation is not good, and they might have tin roofing which does not provide good insulation,” noted Shumon Sengupta, the Bangladesh country director for Save the Children.

Research indicates that high temperatures can impair cognitive functions, reducing students’ ability to retain and process information. A study in the United States found that a school year that was 0.55C (1°F) warmer than average reduced learning by 1%. Schools with air conditioning were less affected, highlighting the inequality between students in different economic situations.

The decision to close schools during heatwaves is becoming more frequent. In the U.S., the average number of school days canceled due to heat has increased over the past decade. In Bangladesh, education officials are considering keeping schools open on weekends to make up for lost days, and decisions on closures are now made at the district level.

Read: List of Schools with Classes Suspended Due to Extreme Heat

As temperatures continue to rise, the challenge of ensuring education continuity while protecting the health of students becomes increasingly complex. This situation not only affects academic performance but also exposes children to risks such as child labor and early marriage, especially when they are out of school for extended periods. The global community faces a pressing need to address these issues as part of broader efforts to combat climate change and its impacts.