Author: Sara Weissman
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A powerful heat wave that began a week ago is forcing colleges and universities across the West Coast to take extra safety precautions, such as providing additional air-conditioned places to study on campus and advising students on how to recognize heat exhaustion. The high temperatures are also prompting some institutions to provide assistance to surrounding communities dealing with sweltering conditions, wildfires and power outages.
Parts of Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada and Utah are under heat advisories and excessive heat warnings from the National Weather Service. Regions in other states, such as Montana, Oregon and Washington State, have received red-flag warnings, indicating potential wildfires.
Campuses in California have been especially hard hit by the climbing temperatures. Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Aug. 31 because of temperatures expected to exceed 100 degrees across the state, reaching at least 110 degrees in some areas. The California Independent System Operator, the corporation managing the state’s power grid, reported in a news release Monday that the grid is under strain and residents can expect repeated power outages unless they reduce their energy use.
Keeping the Heat at Bay
Laney College in Oakland closed its campus Tuesday because of the heat, according to an email sent to students. Online courses were held, but in-person classes were canceled.
“We are continuing to monitor the situation as the heat advisory continues,” the email read.
Mel Ehlers, a sophomore at Laney, didn’t have classes at the college Tuesday and was not affected by the closure, but she was worried it might inconvenience students who rely on campus services, such as the food pantry or on-campus showers.
“One concern I have for my classmates right now is that … many are using the campus for other basic resources,” she wrote in a Twitter message.
The College of Marin posted heat warnings on Twitter last Thursday telling students of expected temperatures at or above 90 degrees through Tuesday.
“Plan ahead and have a buddy system!” the community college tweeted. “During a heat wave, check on medically vulnerable family members, friends, neighbors, and co-workers.”
Jonathan Eldridge, assistant superintendent and vice president of student learning and success at the College of Marin, said the sustained heat has put a lot of pressure on the cooling systems in some buildings and made them less effective. As a result, some classes were moved to buildings where they wouldn’t normally meet.
“The longer the prolonged heat occurs, the more of that we have to try to coordinate, which obviously creates logistical challenges when most of your rooms are already booked with other activities,” he said.
Some faculty members have also gone out of their way to create air-conditioned areas where students can hang out, he said. For example, the chair of the performing arts department put extension cords, power strips and cold drinking water in the lobby of the performing arts building so students could use it as a lounge.
“Given that students aren’t going to be hanging out at our beautiful picnic tables on campus in this kind of heat, they need somewhere inside to approximate that informal space. So, we need more of that than what we typically would use, so they’re creating some additional temporary spaces like that. Nothing fancy, but something to give students a few extra options.”
The heat poses a particular challenge to campuses where some dormitories lack air-conditioning, such as California State University, East Bay.
The campus has some dorms that have fans but no air-conditioning. The university kept certain buildings open each day of the Labor Day weekend to ensure students, faculty and staff members would have somewhere air-conditioned to go.
“We do have some buildings on campus that are not air-conditioned,” Kimberly Hawkins, news and media manager at Cal State East Bay, said in an email. “We are communicating with our campus community about how they can stay cool, where they can go to beat the heat and what to look out for when it comes to heat exposure.”
She said campus leaders are also trying to conserve power to comply with a Flex Alert, a call for state residents to voluntarily reduce their energy use, by the California Independent System Operator.
“The university is aware and doing what we can to play our part,” she said. “Housing residents have been provided educational messages on how they can take a role in conserving energy and staying cool during this period.”
The older dorms at Pomona College, which make up two-thirds of student housing, lack air-conditioning, said Avis Hinkson, dean of students and vice president of student affairs. Fifty cots have been set up in various air-conditioned places on campus for students to sleep on if their rooms are too warm. There aren’t enough beds for all the students who may need them, but she expects some students will stay with friends off campus or in the campus center, which is being kept open 24 hours a day as a cooling area for students. Water stations and mist machines have also been put up throughout campus as places for students to cool down.
“We know that it may be a short amount of time, but it’s an intense amount of time, so how can we be responsive to students’ needs and be as creative as we possibly can?” she said. “The various cooling stations and cots and all that was really our effort to think outside of the box and provide some opportunities for students to find a cool space on campus.”
Josh Gana, facilities and physical environment director at the Association of College and University Housing Officers–International, said many dormitories in regions with typically temperate or cooler climates were built without air-conditioning to cut costs and make campus residence halls more sustainable.
“It traditionally hasn’t been cost-effective to install air-conditioning in a climate environment where the average temperature doesn’t get super high and when the buildings are used primarily during the cooler season,” said Gana, who also serves as the director of operations for housing and services at the University of Washington. “That’s part of both the design and maintenance cost.”
However, he said campus facilities professionals like himself are increasingly concerned about heat waves. The University of Washington had to issue extra fans to keep visitors attending academic conferences on campus cool this summer and modify employee uniforms because of the heat.
“I think over time we’ve seen in some of those cooler climate areas the average temperature increasing and the number of days that are of heat concern increasing, particularly during the middle of the summer,” he said. “And that has caused institutions to rethink some future-proofing and designs, I think, and some new construction.”
Helping Communities Cool Down
Some colleges and universities have also stepped up efforts to help local residents in surrounding areas cope with the heat.
Pacific Union College, a private liberal arts institution, on Thursday designated an air-conditioned room in its on-campus church as a community cooling center where Napa County residents can cool off, use power outlets and drink ice water, the Napa Valley Register reported. The center could stay open past Sept. 8 depending on the level of need.
Salish Kootenai College, a tribal college in Montana, is operating as a base for firefighters battling nearby wildfires, as it has done repeatedly over the last two years. President Sandra Boham said between 25 and 75 firefighters are staying in tents in the campus parking lot each night and using gym showers, in addition to portable showers brought to campus.
“We try to support the community as much as we can,” Boham said. “And for the last couple of years, with the big fires we’ve had in this area, there’s a need for quite a few people to fight the fires, and so they have to be somewhere. We’re one of the staging areas set up like a camp.”
Boham said it’s possible students and firefighters will be on campus at the same time, depending on how long it takes to put the fires out. But the weather forecast for her area makes her hopeful the temperature will drop by the time fall classes start next week.
“Some of our housing units don’t have air-conditioning,” she said. “That makes it a little tough, but I don’t think we’ll really see a lot of impact from it.”
Gana said he expects campus facilities are going to have to change as heat waves become more common.
“It’s a combination of managing in the current environment and understanding what facilities abilities and limitations you have in your current physical plant, but also planning for the future,” he said. “I think understanding that climate change is occurring and the average temperature is increasing, it is cause for reconsidering design standards and how buildings are built.”