Filing into the school gymnasium is an all too familiar feeling: The squeak of glossy pine floorboards, the reek of sweat, rubber balls and cheap body sprays. But for some Alachua County students, there’s an added woe:
“It’s very hot. Too hot,” said Layla Robinson, a seventh grader at High Springs Community School and No. 3 on the Hawks’ varsity volleyball team.
At least four Alachua County public schools have no air conditioning units in their gyms—at a time when local temperatures are rising, linked to global warming and greenhouse gas emissions. Instead of A/C, the gyms at Howard Bishop Middle, Westwood Middle, Mebane Middle and High Springs Community, where Robinson plays volleyball, have fans, according to Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson Jackie Johnson.
Players said the fans do little more than push around hot air. Sometimes, coaches and parents open the doors at either end of the gym to get air moving. However, experts say the rising temperatures in non-air conditioned school gyms could pose a greater danger than just discomfort.
Heat is a real health risk to young athletes, said Brian D. Avery at the University of Florida’s College of Health and Human Performance. “When I learned that gyms didn’t have A/C and they were still holding events, I was appalled,” said Avery, a lecturer and director in the college’s Department of Sport Management.
“As these temperatures do rise, we need to make sure we’re modifying our experiences and associated risks,” he said.
This August, the month local students returned to school, was the hottest on record for Alachua County, according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. Temperatures rose into the mid-90s. But the relative humidity meant it felt more like it was in the 100s.
Avery said once athletes are exposed to temperatures above 92 degrees, certain measures must be implemented to avoid injury or illness. The safety measures include canceling or rescheduling practices and games. If play must go on, increasing water breaks and having heat-related injury and illness responses are imperative.
Johnson, the county schools’ spokesperson, said the district has tried to keep up with rising temperatures by replacing or fixing old A/C units around the county. But gyms in some older and historically underfunded schools have been left behind. There are no current plans to install A/C units in gyms that don’t have them.
Johnson said Alachua County’s “Half-Cent for Schools” sales tax initiative, passed by local voters in November 2018, was intended to help repair older schools, including broken-down air conditioners. But despite the massive repair and revitalization work that’s followed at schools such as Howard Bishop, the added cost of installing a completely new A/C system in gyms proved prohibitive, she said.
“Howard Bishop has $35-$36 million going into the school, but the A/C would’ve cost additional millions,” said Johnson.
Cool schools, grim gyms
There are 6,000 A/C units across the county’s public schools, Johnson said, with temperatures controlled by a central system at the district to help conserve energy and money. Seventeen schools had their A/Cs replaced over the past five years, she said. This year, eight more schools are scheduled for new units. But while gyms, including those at Buchholz and Santa Fe high schools got new A/C units, others including Bishop did not because they never had A/C in the first place.
The gymnasium “hasn’t changed since the 90s, since I played in this gym when I was a student,” said Bishop mom Jamie Ashford, whose daughter Gracie Ashford plays on the Junior Varsity volleyball team. “When we see hotter and longer summers, [the heat] starts to become more pronounced,” she said.
State Climatologist David Zierden confirmed summers are getting hotter. Florida broke the monthly record for statewide average temperatures this July at 84.2 degrees Fahrenheit, he said, and crushed the record in August, too, with an average of 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Jamie Ashford and her parents go to all Gracie’s games. They bring their own personal electric fan to help keep cool in the gym.
Albina Stewart, who came to the Bishop volleyball match Sept. 18 to watch her granddaughter Lady Stewart, compared the gymnasium to an oven. Albina Stewart also brings an electric fan that plugs into the wall to cool her family during the matches. Her right hand always clutches an additional hand-held fan.
“It serves two purposes: one for fanning and one for celebration,” she said as she clapped her fan together to cheer a point won by Bishop.
Back on the north end of the county at High Springs Community School, Jasmin Robinson, mom to JV player Layla, said that she normally lugs two electric fans to the games so she can share with anyone who forgets theirs.
“We just do our best to stay cool,” said Robinson, who explained that she preps the car with A/C and cold water when she picks up her daughter from practice.
“We love the sports programs at High Springs,” she said. But she’d also love to see the gyms more accessible to all students including those who wouldn’t be able to tolerate the heat.
Jeff Wilson is a physical education teacher at Westwood Middle School, which is now undergoing reconstruction as part of the half-cent sales tax upgrades—but with no plans for A/C in the gym. Wilson said the Westwood gym gets so hot he prefers to go outside for class.
Wilson, a 24-year veteran of the district, said he is dismayed athletic facilities aren’t getting the same upgrades. He stressed the “educational” side of the words “physical education.” Unfortunately, he said, too few people understand that side.
“What about phys. ed?” asked Wilson. “Why should we expect anything less?”
Ashlea Moore, who coaches volleyball and basketball at Bishop, said their gym also gets hotter than the temperature outside. She said some people consider training in the heat as a competitive advantage.
“But knowing what we know about heat and how quickly one can go from being fine to showing symptoms of heat illness,” she said, “it’s really no advantage to us.”
Safety and Solutions
Avery, in UF’s Department of Sport Management, said student health is paramount, and school officials should always prioritize it. Heat exchange, essentially how the human body sweats to cool itself down, can become blocked once outside temperatures rise above 95 degrees, he said. He advised planning for early morning workouts or games could be one possible solution to avoid exposing children to dangerous heat levels.
“It boils down to: What are the schools doing?” he said.
Mebane Middle School Principal Mike Gamble, who also served as long-time principal at Bishop, said having A/C for all the gyms in the county has been on his wish list for the whole 30 years he’s been with the district.
Given the lack of air conditioning in the Mebane gym, Gamble said PE teacher Kathy Bloodsworth uses an app on her phone to monitor the Wet Bulb Temperature, or “feels like” temperature.
Last week, NASA announced this summer as the hottest since global records began in 1880. The record-setting temperatures “aren’t just a set of numbers,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the longtime Florida Congressman, said in a statement. “They result in dire real-world consequences.”
As governments continue to debate the best ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Layla Robinson, No. 3 on the High Springs Community School varsity volleyball team, has a simpler request: “Fix the A/C. Right now. Please.”