In the sweltering heat, no electricity, water shortages and crowded classrooms together make learning impossible as summer temperatures soars across the country through the summer months.

No wonder, then, that by the third week of April, several states shut schools as an emergency response to what are becoming increasingly frequent – heat waves.

States that shut schools included West Bengal, Maharashtra, Odisha, Tripura and even Meghalaya, a first for the North Eastern state. Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar decided to reschedule school timings.

While this was the first such instance for Meghalaya, changing school timings or closing schools due to heat wave conditions is commonplace in other states.

Some states advanced the summer vacation and directed all government and government-aided schools to conduct extra classes upon reopening to make up for the loss due to early closure. Private schools, meanwhile, shifted to online classes following government directives.

As heat waves become common with rising temperatures, ensuring an uninterrupted academic calendar is a growing challenge in many parts of the country. Heat waves, with their effect on the quality of life and the economy through their impact on health, agriculture, water availability and labour productivity, are also inextricably linked to education and learning.

But the effect of rising temperatures and increasing heat waves on learning has still not received the policy attention it deserves. As a result, heat action plans for education are limited to school closures or change in school timing and hours.

Schools in India are not equipped to deal with increasingly hotter summers and appropriate infrastructure is a major barrier. As per the National Education Policy, 2020, student strength for a classroom – also called student classroom ratio, or SCR – should not exceed 30.

According to data available on the education ministry’s Unified District Information System for Education portal, the percentage of government schools meeting the student classroom ratio norm increased from 74% in 2015-’16 to 78% in 2017-’18. But more than 70,000 government schools across India still have a student classroom ratio above 50 and the variation is stark across states.

For example, Karnataka’s student classroom ratio compliance is 100% but Bihar is only 34%. Moreover, around 55,000 schools in India are single classroom schools – 90% of which are in rural India. In Assam, Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the proportion of such schools is more than 10%.

In summer, congested classrooms without adequate ventilation make for an unfavourable learning environment, for students and teachers alike. High ambient temperatures also restrict student activities in outdoor spaces.

Air conditioning or improved ventilation and cooling in classrooms is a necessity. But this is limited to a handful of government and mostly private schools.

Classrooms in government schools lack proper ventilation basics, like fans, with erratic power supply that adds to the discomfort. According to the Unified District Information System for Education portal’s data for 2021-’22, 15% of government schools in India do not have a functional electricity connection. The percentage of schools with functional electricity ranges is at an appalling 25% in Odisha, 30% in Madhya Pradesh, 23% in the wealthy state of Maharashtra and just 19% in Uttar Pradesh.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, many schools now also have facilities such as interactive white boards and “smart” classrooms that are an additional load on electric capacity. Though only 14% government schools in India have smart classrooms, with the growing policy emphasis on integrating technology in education, more schools are likely to invest in “smart” classrooms.

A boy carries water bottles on a hot summer day in New Delhi on May 22. Credit: PTI

Water shortage, hygiene and health

Water availability during summer is another major concern with dehydration and other health issues common among students. The availability of water for basic sanitation and hygiene also affects school attendance, especially in the case of menstruating students.

As per data available until 2021-’22, around 4% government schools lacked any kind of drinking water facility and 6% had no water, sanitation or handwash facilities.

These factors, combined with high temperatures, will not only increase absenteeism and dropout rates but adversely affect the learning quality of students.

In the absence of a facilitating environment, it becomes difficult for students to concentrate in class and equally difficult for teachers to offer meaningful instruction.

A study published in Nature in December 2020 showed that students performed worse in tests when they experienced a hot school year than when they experienced a cool school year.

The situation is more pronounced for schools in urban areas. With urbanisation, the absence of sufficient green cover and open spaces, Indian cities are experiencing a greater fallout of rising temperatures. As a result, school going-children in urban areas, especially metro cities, are more prone to the impacts of heat waves.

Heat waves are also an equity concern. Socio-economically marginalised children are the most vulnerable to weather extremes. These are children who largely attend government schools or low-cost private schools that lack supporting infrastructure to manage extreme heat.

For the disadvantaged and marginalised, schools, whether open or closed during summer, poorly affect the learning outcomes of students either way. Online education during extreme weather is not an option for everyone given the digital divide among students, made more evident following the Covid-19 pandemic.

Livelihood crisis, long-term impact

Heat-induced crises in other sectors reinforce educational vulnerabilities. For example, shrinking work or productivity due to high temperatures disproportionately affects the livelihood of people from socio-economically poorer backgrounds as they are mostly engaged in agricultural work or casual labour.

Estimates say that due to extreme heat, by 2050, India will witness a 15% decrease in outdoor working capacity during the day time. Such growing financial vulnerabilities associated with climate change are compelling students from poorer backgrounds to discontinue their study and take up work to support their families.

The number of heat wave days per decade in India is also increasing. The number had increased from 413 in 1981-’90 to 575 in 2001-’10 and hit 600 in 2011-’20 according to a report by the World Economic Forum. If this trend continues, educational inequalities will be exacerbated while undermining progress towards reducing such disparities.

The National Education Policy, 2020, mentions mainstreaming environment education and research in curriculum as a partial solution to address future climate crises but is silent about the effects of climate-related risks on education.

As an immediate intervention, governments should invest in building heat-resilient school infrastructure to reduce the learning disparity among students to the extent possible. A guideline for climate-resilient school infrastructure should be developed across states.

As adaptation interventions are not one-time investments but require recurring spending, there has to be a conscious effort to incorporate climate action priorities in education planning and budgeting that can ensure sustainable as well as inclusive education.

Heatwaves negatively affect children’s access to basic services, like education, but the deprivation of essential services itself reduces their resiliency and adaptive capacity. Thus, addressing this requires sectors and schemes to work together. A heat wave vulnerability mitigation strategy should not be a short-term intervention but a long term policy measure.

Protiva works as Thematic Lead – Social Sectors at Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, New Delhi. Her email address is