Surviving the Heat Without Air Conditioning


September 23rd, 2019

With schools back in session, school officials should consider the implications of holding classes and other activities in high temperatures.

Disabled Employees

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:

  • Fibromyalgia;
  • Asthma;
  • Anemia;
  • 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.

Disabled Students

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).

Student Activities

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.

Conclusion

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

https://www.michigan.gov/mdhhs/0,5885,7-339-71548_54783_54784_78428_78430_78441—,00.html

and on MHSAA’s website at

https://www.mhsaa.com/Schools/Health-Safety-Resources/Hydration-and-Heat-Illness

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.