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Surviving the Heat Without Air Conditioning
With schools back in session, school officials should consider the implications of holding classes and other activities in high temperatures.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) generally requires employers, including schools, to provide a qualified employee with a disability a reasonable accommodation to assist the employee in performing the essential functions of that employee’s job. Michigan’s Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act substantially mirrors the ADA in this regard.
Courts have not addressed whether temperature sensitivity is a disability, but some medical conditions may be triggered or exacerbated by high temperatures. Those include:
- Low blood pressure;
- Multiple sclerosis; and
- Some forms of cancer.
The reasonable accommodation provided to an employee with a disability is determined through the ADA’s interactive process. An employer’s obligation to engage in the interactive process and offer a reasonable accommodation is generally triggered by an employee’s request for an accommodation.
School officials and the employee should discuss the employee’s proposed accommodation and other potential accommodations, as well as the feasibility and effectiveness of each proposed accommodation. Al-though employers must give some deference to the employee’s suggestions, the decision on what reasonable accommodation is selected is within the school’s discretion.
Reasonable accommodations for an employee whose disability is triggered or exacerbated by high temperatures may include moving the person to a cooler area of the classroom or building, allowing the employee to use a personal fan, providing additional breaks, or permitting the use of accrued or unpaid leave.
Both Rehabilitation Act Section 504 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) require that a school provide eligible students a free appropriate public education (FAPE) based on the student's individual needs. The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) rarely views budgetary considerations and administrative convenience as acceptable reasons to reduce or eliminate services required for a student with a disability to receive a FAPE.
School officials should review any Individualized Education Program (IEP) or Section 504 plan that requires a student to receive instruction in a room with cooler temperatures. If the classroom where the student is scheduled to receive instruction does not have a functioning air conditioning unit, it may be necessary to amend the IEP or 504 Plan or reconvene the IEP or 504 Team to discuss how best to provide the student a FAPE (e.g., providing the student with a personal fan or cooling unit or closing the classroom’s shades).
School officials and teachers should avoid moving a disabled student to a cooler area of the school building to work independently. OCR found that a school violated a student’s right to a FAPE when the student was sent to a cooler building area to work independently during a two-week period when the classroom’s air conditioning was broken. Birdville Indep Sch Dist (OCR, 2015).
Many schools have adopted the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s (MHSAA) proposed heat and humidity guidelines for conducting athletic activities. These guidelines direct schools to begin monitoring the heat index (a combination of temperature and humidity) once the temperature reaches 80 degrees. Depending on the heat index, the guidelines require providing water breaks, observing athletes, offering cooling towels, or delaying practice until later in the day. The guidelines state that if the heat index exceeds 104 degrees, a school must stop all outdoor and indoor activity if air conditioning is not available.
School officials overseeing schools where air conditioning units are broken or non-existent should review applicable board policies and safety plans, and consider the general safety of the students and employees. Information about symptoms of heat illnesses, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke, are available on the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website at
and on MHSAA’s website at
Some safety measures school officials may implement during high temperatures include scheduling frequent water breaks, providing students and staff with water bottles, distributing fans, closing blinds, turning off lights, and in some cases moving classes to cooler rooms or outside in the shade. In extreme conditions, school officials may even determine that delays, early dismissals, or cancellations of classes or activities are necessary for the safety and welfare of students and employees.
Finally, schools may be able to use surplus bond proceeds to finance the purchase of a new structural or detachable air conditioning unit or to use sinking fund monies to purchase a structural unit. If you are interested in purchasing an air conditioning unit through one of those financing options, please contact your Thrun finance attorney for further details.