All parts of Taiwan have been experiencing very hot weather, with temperatures soaring close to record highs. While hot weather is a torment in classrooms with no air-conditioning, it is all the more risky for classes taught outdoors.
As a physical education teacher, I have to speak out about some of my on-the-spot teaching experiences. Compared with subjects taught indoors, where direct sunlight can be avoided, physical education classes at Taiwanese schools are mostly taught outdoors on sports grounds and basketball courts. Even though some schools have indoor sports facilities, teachers and classes must take turns using them. All this adds up to make summer the toughest season for physical education teachers and their students.
The Taipei Department of Education cares about risks due to high temperatures in schools. A document circulated by the department reads roughly as follows: If Taipei repeatedly experiences temperatures of 36°C or higher, as announced by the Central Weather Bureau with “orange” heatwave warnings, schools should provide extra guidance about how to prevent heat stress. They should also adjust the way outdoor classes are taught or move them to shaded places, the department says.
Because of climate change and the extreme weather that it causes, average summer temperatures in Taiwan are rising. The urban heat island effect makes it hotter indoors and out.
To make matters worse, Taipei is located in a basin, which makes it difficult for daytime heat to disperse. Even if doors and windows are kept open to allow for airflow, it often stays hot and stuffy indoors. As a result, even if physical education teachers move their lessons inside, there is still the risk of students suffering heat stress.
The school where I teach is in the Muzha (木柵) area of Taipei’s Wenshan District (文山). With plenty of trees on campus and mountains nearby, the school’s natural environment should be cool, but by 10am, when the sun is high in the sky, it gets hot enough to make someone faint.
Physical education lessons involve activities that cause students’ core body temperatures to rise. Besides, students are not as fit as they used to be. If they went to bed late and did not get enough rest, or if they did not drink enough water, it makes studying in a hot environment all the more worrisome for their health.
Some might say that physical education teachers could design less demanding lessons, but such classes would stray from their original purpose. This is a quandary for teachers.
The Australian Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union last year called for “high temperature leave.” In Australia — where I used to live and study — workers would have the right to stop working when the temperature reaches 35°C and their bosses would not be allowed to refuse.
Of course, Taiwan has different conditions from Australia, but the protection of human life is a universal value, so the nation should also have concrete and practical education policies that regulate classes held in high temperatures.
The school closures implemented at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the end of the semester for primary and secondary schools until the middle of this month, with summer courses starting soon thereafter.
Those in charge should not just issue notices that remind teachers and students to avoid excessive exposure to sunlight during outdoor lessons. With a long summer ahead, policies — drawn up in advance through the integrated actions of the ministries and agencies involved — should outline in detail what to do in the case of high temperatures. The nation’s long-suffering school staff should receive practical resources and support from the government, or at least a set of flexible complementary regulations that allow teachers and students to have their lessons in cool and safe conditions.
The Ministry of Education will hopefully come up with concrete support measures for keeping schools cool in the baking summer heat — all concerned would be truly thankful if they did.
Tao Yi-che is a teacher at the Affiliated High School of National Chengchi University.
Translated by Julian Clegg
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