Extreme Heat Exposes Critical Gaps in Nevada’s Built Environment

September 8, 2021

Nancy Brune and Lorena Rodriguez

This opinion piece was originally published in the Las Vegas Sun. Every once and awhile, our professional and personal lives merge. That happened last week as we were finishing up our report, Strengthening Heat Resiliency among Communities of Color in Southern Nevada, (which was completed in partnership with Morrison Institute and funded by the Walmart Foundation). On Monday, we received a call from our kids’ school informing us that the school’s heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system was not working (again). In response, the school’s leadership team decided to transport our middle schoolers by bus to a high school for the day. Less than two hours later, the school called again to inform us that the students had been bused back to their middle school. One thing was certain: Not much learning was done that day.

Ironically, the incident only reinforced the findings of our report.

Las Vegas is now the fastest warming city in the United States. Recently, we interviewed more than 50 community members and leaders in Southern Nevada to better understand their experience with extreme heat and how COVID-19 exacerbated their existing vulnerabilities to heat. Most reported that COVID-19 had exacerbated existing heat-related challenges and/or presented new ones in one of four decision spaces (e.g., public, private, transit, and workplace).

There are two conclusions from our report that merit emphasizing. First, most of the existing government-sponsored policies and programs in Southern Nevada that seek to mitigate the effects of extreme heat are location-based. For example, home weatherization and utility assistance programs provide support to individuals in their home dwelling. And private programs, such as NV Energy’s PowerShift program, which offers qualifying individuals free in-home energy assessments, smart thermostats, and energy efficient amenities (e.g., dryers and refrigerators), and limited rebates for the purchase of energy efficient home air conditioners – are also location-based.

However, almost two-thirds of the community members interviewed indicated that they were most likely to experience extreme heat in transit. This included driving in a personal vehicle that had a broken or inefficient air conditioning system, walking their children to and from school, waiting for public transportation, and walking to public places (e.g., parks, libraries). In other words, there is a policy gap in where individuals are most vulnerable to extreme heat and the policies and programs that exist to address heat-related challenges. As such, we recommend that decision makers explore programs that help residents address their exposure to heat during transit. Among the possible policy interventions are covered shelters at bus stops, and the installation of water bottle refilling stations and water misters at bus stops. Additionally, public decision-makers should consider creating a fund that helps low-income individuals, seniors on fixed incomes, and medically fragile individuals fix or purchase air conditioning systems for their vehicles.

Speaking of transit – our second and somewhat related conclusion is that our built environment is being challenged by extreme heat and decision makers may need to adapt and reimagine the ways we design our environment (and allocate resources to do so). For example, most of our bus stops in southern Nevada are constructed  from materials that absorb heat.

Additionally, the incident at our children’s school last week revealed (once again) that our schools are not prepared to withstand the effects of extreme heat. Of the 350-plus schools in Clark County School District (CCSD), about one third “are at least 30 years old, and another third are 20 to 29 years old. That 20-29 range is significant, because that’s the age when systems tend to start failing.” CCSD has stated that deferred maintenance and the “modernization, life cycle and equity updates” of its schools and buildings total $7.9 billion. As of the end of 2019, CCSD had “amassed a backlog of around 15,000 maintenance requests for HVAC, plumbing and structural repairs” and was warned that some of the systems were “dangerously close to imminent failure.” Last week’s HVAC failure was an example of how critical  the situation has become.

In addition to HVAC systems, we would suggest that school water fountains, while not previously deemed essential, are critical parts of the built environment that merit attention given sustained temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Many water fountains in CCSD’s schools are dirty and may even be non-functioning.  Certainly, they do not meet COVID-19 safety guidelines. Clean and functioning water fountains and water-bottle refilling stations are critical to student safety and health.

Water-bottle refilling stations at every school would provide relief from the heat for students and their families who walk to and from school and for students in foster care and housing insecure students who may not have readily available access to water after hours and on the weekends. (FYI – CCSD has more than 10,000 homeless students enrolled in the district.)

The stark reality is that the effects of extreme heat are not disproportionately distributed throughout our valley. A 2021 study examining urban locations in the southwestern region of the United States found that, on average, the poorest 10 percent of neighborhoods in an urban setting region were 4 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the wealthiest 10 percent of neighborhoods on both extreme heat days and average summer days.

Similarly, the gaps in our built infrastructure at our schools also fall along socio-economic lines. Many of our old schools, which are in the region’s urban core where poverty rates and unemployment rates are higher, lack high-performing HVAC systems and water fountains that are clean or usable. One CCSD teacher said that she taught for “four months without air conditioning or heating in East Las Vegas.”

Currently, southern Nevada has $440 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds. CCSD has $777 million in ARP funds to invest in its students. Admittedly, investing in HVAC systems does not seem as critical as investing in Tier I instructional materials for English Language Arts or pre-K expansion. However, a 2020 study does find that there is an impact of heat on learning: Researchers “ demonstrate that heat inhibits learning and that school air conditioning may mitigate this effect. New nationwide, school-level measures of air conditioning penetration suggest patterns consistent with such infrastructure largely offsetting heat’s effects. Without air conditioning, a 1°F hotter school year reduces that year’s learning by 1 percent. Hot school days disproportionately impact minority students, accounting for roughly 5 percent of the racial achievement gap.”

The reality for southern Nevada community members is that we live in a region that is experiencing rising temperatures. Given the amount of time our students and their families spend in transit (going to work and to school) and inside school buildings, it is critical that decision-makers explore ways to direct some of Nevada’s ARP funds to ensuring the fundamental safety and well-being of our community members, particularly those that are vulnerable to heat.