Allison Hanes: Could September heat waves become the new normal?

Allison Hanes: Could September heat waves become the new normal?
Allison Hanes: Could September heat waves become the new normal?

Many Montreal parents have been in a panic this week about the conditions in their children’s classrooms as the city sweats through a week of sweltering temperatures.

Indeed the heat wave — highs hit 31 C Tuesday, but it felt more like 40C with the humidex — is extraordinary for late September. We just shattered the record set in the late ’60s. And severe heat warnings usually reserved for mid-July are in effect.

But the temperatures themselves aren’t really that unusual for, say, late June.

So while there is much concern about whether our children will wilt at their desks a few weeks after going back to school, it’s not actually that different from what they normally experience when school is about to let out. (Although not this year, as June was rainy, cool and damp, while July and August were only marginally better.)

Still, there has been tremendous handwringing about what precautions schools are taking to help kids beat the heat and keep them hydrated. And there is much consternation in some households about why most schools are not equipped with air conditioning. Some parents in Montreal, as elsewhere in Quebec and Ontario where it’s sizzling, have been pulling their kids out of class or keeping them home because of the tropical conditions.

Of course, nobody wants their kids to melt or suffer heatstroke. But I don’t ever recall this level of frenzy over the dangers of blazing hot classrooms in late springs past — or this level of sympathy for students who attend summer school, for that matter.

Fans are used to cool an overheated classroom: Most Montreal schools aren’t equipped with air conditioning. Marco Garcia / Associated Press

Reasonable precautions are certainly being taken: parents being asked to send extra drinks for their children; schools stocking up on bottled water; staff encouraging students to use water fountains to slake their thirst; fans being turned up full blast to circulate the stuffy air; and teachers taking their classes outside for lessons – in the shade, of course. Students are also being encouraged not to overexert themselves at recess and to take breathers during gym class or sports practice.

It can’t be that easy for the teachers to handle the torrid temperatures, either. But principals, coaches, staff and after-school program supervisors seem to be doing their best to keep cool and carry on.

Maybe we’re so used to dealing with the windchill that a heat wave in September seems like uncharted territory. It takes a blizzard on the scale of the howler that whipped Montreal March 15 to result in school closures, so accustomed are we to dealing with ice and cold.

Most Montreal schools aren’t equipped with air conditioning because we’ve never typically needed it. Classes usually let up about the time the scorching days of summer arrive. Schools in hot climates like Florida or California might be equipped with AC, but Montreal schools have only ever required heaters.

But if scorchers in September become the new norm under the shifting weather patterns we are experiencing because of climate change, new measures might be called for. If, say, we get to the point where it starts hitting 30 degrees in mid-May and lasting through June, then perhaps Montreal schools will eventually have to be outfitted with air conditioning. Many of our schools, particularly in the core, are old, crumbling and in need of repairs, anyway. We may need to start installing cooling systems as a matter of course when major renovations take place if we are going to make our schools bearable year round in the age of global warming. 

The tricky part is that climate change is playing havoc with weather systems, causing more severe storms and making it more difficult to forecast accurately. It’s a crapshoot. But if we do start to see summer weather shift more predictably to September, maybe the school calendar will have to be adjusted in turn so that we can take advantage of the most favourable holiday conditions.

Because, to me, the worst part of this whole situation is that our kids are baking in their classrooms when they could be outside swimming, playing and enjoying themselves. I sure wish I were on vacation now rather than back in August when the rain put a damper on many of my plans.

The good news is, the heat wave is supposed to break by Thursday, when temperatures should drop back to seasonal. So we’ll just have to chill out for one more day. By Friday, I predict we’ll all be getting out our sweaters when the sun goes down and lamenting the end of our belated summer. And by Thanksgiving, we may well be complaining about the arrival of cold and flu season.

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