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Oklahoma schools adapting recreational activities in face of excessive heat

Teachers trade off holding a sprinkler while fourth grade students run and dance at Macomb Elementary School.
Beth Wallis
StateImpact Oklahoma
Teachers trade off holding a sprinkler while fourth grade students run and dance at Macomb Elementary School.

Oklahoma’s blistering summer is breaking records and testing school districts’ resources and resiliency.

Globally, this summer was the hottest ever recorded. Locally, northeast Oklahoma hit an all-time high heat index at a sweltering 127 degrees. In August alone, the Oklahoma Mesonet recorded a heat index of at least 115 degrees 212 times.

These environmental conditions can lead to poor academic performance, heat exhaustion or worse. A fifth grader at Chelsea Public Schools was recently hospitalized from heat exhaustion at recess.

Faced with the dangers of excessive heat, educators around the state are getting creative to keep kids safe and cool while still providing recreational opportunities.

Working with the heat, not against it

Small schools in Oklahoma often don’t have the same resources, infrastructure or facilities as larger schools. That means when the mercury rises, educators have to pivot.

Macomb Public Schools is a very small district about 50 miles from Oklahoma City. On a recent Friday, the temperature hit 102 degrees with a heat index of 106 degrees. Superintendent Matt Riggs said even though the district’s HVAC systems have been updated in the last few years, it’s still difficult to keep up.

“Even with newer units, the heat is hard on them, and we’ve had a few breakdowns,” Riggs said. “Getting those addressed quickly and having contingencies in place is the biggest challenge.”

The school’s gym and multi-activity building don’t have air conditioning, so students in PE can’t participate in their usual activities like basketball.

“Whatever the heat index is outside, you can add about ten degrees to inside the gym,” Coach James Hancock said.

That day, Hancock held his third and fourth-grade girls’ PE in a classroom with the desks pushed to the walls. A Smart Board played kid-friendly exercise videos while students hopped and lunged along. They jumped on desks and chairs while playing The Floor is Lava, stomped and clapped to the Cha Cha Slide, and danced along to Baby Shark.

Hancock said the district had to cancel all of its softball games for the week due to the heat.

PE and sports aren’t the only activities affected by the extreme heat. Recess helps kids to take a break from the classroom and get some movement. Inside recess makes that difficult, so educators at Macomb came up with something special for hot days.

In the school courtyard, each elementary grade went outside for 15 minutes for a water activity. Students ran through a sprinkler, ate frozen popsicles and listened to music.

Teachers are also trying to incorporate the heat into their lessons. One kindergarten classroom held a science experiment with s’mores to see which container — a box colored black or a box covered in foil — would melt the fastest. The foil won.

With chocolate-smeared faces and toothy smiles, some of the kindergartners pointed out an art project they’d made earlier in the week. A picture made from streaked melted crayons hung proudly on the wall.

“We take crayons… and we put it outside and let it melt, and then we let it run [and] dry,” a kindergarten girl said. “And then we made art!”

In addition to recreational opportunities like recess and PE being impacted by the heat, high-stakes competitive activities are also taking measures to keep students safe.

Competing in the heat

At Bixby Public Schools, a large district located in a south Tulsa suburb, the Pride of Bixby Marching Band prepares their show for this year’s contest season. Students form intricate designs on the field while playing instruments — a feat requiring a high level of concentration and athleticism.

Director of Bands Jeremy Parker says over the last few years, the program has taken several steps to ensure student safety. The band rehearses early in the morning every day, giving students ample breaks in the shade to rest and drink water.

But temperatures at the band’s afternoon rehearsals, football games and contests can get significantly hotter. The program’s staff receive specialized training in preventing heat illness and what to do if an emergency happens.

“I feel like all the students’ safety is very much kept in mind,” Parker said.

At a Bixby band rehearsal, you’ll see over a hundred large water jugs along the sidelines. Band parents form a “water brigade” to ensure water refills are accessible throughout rehearsal. Volunteer parents who are registered nurses are often on hand in case medical personnel are needed.

Parker also says one of the most important factors in being heat-ready is making sure the students are in good physical condition.

“If you’re going out into this heat… and you’ve not been outside, that would have been a very stressful environment for your body. And so we take our time conditioning just like any athlete would,” Parker said. “When we put a uniform on in a few weeks and we’re performing in the sun or whatever the conditions are, our students are acclimated and conditioned to do that safely.”

He says decisions about rehearsing outside used to be made on the heat index, but Bixby and several other districts StateImpact spoke with for this story are using a different metric to make those determinations — the WetBulb Globe Temperature, often just called the “wet bulb temperature.”

The wet bulb temperature goes further than the heat index, which uses only the temperature and humidity and is calculated for shady areas. The wet bulb accounts for the actual temperature, humidity, wind speed, and solar radiation from the sun angle and cloud cover.

A graph from the National Weather Center shows general guidelines for the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature.
National Weather Center
A graph from the National Weather Center shows general guidelines for the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature.

Bixby’s temperature gauging methodology is based on a five-tier system where each level corresponds with a temperature range — as the wet bulb temperature goes up, the intensity and duration of outside activity goes down. One day recently hit level five, so students rehearsed inside until it cooled off.

He says working with the heat is now just part of the activity — and the kids get it.

“I think they feel good knowing that we have their safety at the top of our priority, and they just trust us,” Parker said. “And we accommodate our rehearsals, you know, with that in mind.”

A handful of miles away, in Jenks, Oklahoma, one of the state’s top football teams is also gearing up for their season. The day’s heat index is 110 degrees, and the wet bulb temperature from the stadium’s monitor reads 89.7.

The students have ice baths and cold towels on standby, several recovery gadgets, and there’s an inside practice plan for extra hot days.

Head Athletic Trainer Michael Catterson says Jenks uses guidelines from the Korey Stringer Institute — a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing sudden death in sports, named after a Minnesota Vikings football player who died from a heat stroke suffered during training camp.

The institute points to research from the University of Georgia for its heat guidelines. Different regions of the country have different climates and levels of heat acclimation from its inhabitants. Oklahoma, for example, is in the region with the highest levels of wet bulb temperature and heat acclimation. That means exertion guidelines are localized.

“The climate that our kids are used to and exposed to [is] very different than what the kids in, say, Cape Cod, Minnesota, you know, stuff like that [are exposed to],” Catterson said. “So we’re at really the highest end of that threshold. … Based on what the [wet bulb temperature] is, we have practice modifications and stuff like that.”

He says pushing student athletes to their limits used to be worn like a badge of honor — but now that they know better, they do better.

“What we’re doing from a football standpoint is different than what we did 20 years ago,” Catterson said. “We’re not running the same offense. We’re not running the same defense. And so what we’re doing from the health and safety aspect, from athletic training and sports medicine has changed and evolved as well.”

The science of heat and learning

In addition to safety, heat takes a toll on learning. Research with older students taking the PSAT showed a causal impact of heat on student learning outcomes. Travis Roach, an economics professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, teamed up with his co-author Jacob Whitney to take the research a step further.

“For as many times as I’ve been in a hot portable [building] growing up in Texas, you know, those things kind of cook,” Roach said. “And it’s hard to pay attention and have the same day as you would if it were nice outside.”

The researchers studied test scores for younger children from when they hit third grade to finishing eighth grade, controlling for factors like socioeconomic impacts on infrastructure availability and events like the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout that caused students to miss up to two weeks of school. One of the most recent and disruptive events, the COVID-19 pandemic, happened after the research period.

“What we’re able to do is to see how many hot days that that student faced in a year and how that affects their achievement on state standardized test scores,” Roach said. “Do districts that have higher average temperatures, do they have lower scores? And we find statistically significant evidence that that is the case.”

He made another finding when counting how many days are in the 80s and 90s - the more days with those high temperatures, the more negative an effect on student scores. He says global climate change is causing the world to get hotter, and with a new climate come new realities.

“Now, we may not notice it so much on a day-to-day basis, let’s say, if the average temperature increases by one degree. But we do notice when it’s strung together 100-degree day[s],” Roach said. “And those small changes — that one degree on average over a year — that affect and hurt student learning outcomes could be concentrated into these days that are especially bad — which happen at a higher frequency now that global weather patterns have changed.”

Roach said it doesn’t even need to be particularly hot for students to feel the brain drain.

“Any additional degree above about 84 starts reducing student learning,” Roach said.

It’s September, and Oklahomans are hoping the worst of the summer may be coming to an end. But of course, it’ll be back next year — and schools will have to keep finding ways to adapt.

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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
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