As Swarthmore students returned to campus this past week for the start of classes, they were greeted by temperatures reaching as high as 96 degrees and RealFeel temperatures peaking at 104 degrees, according to Accuweather. To advise residents of the dangerous temperatures, the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for Southeastern Pennsylvania between Tuesday, Sept. 5, and Thursday, Sept. 7.
For the 95% of Swarthmore students living on campus, 61% have been forced to endure these extreme temperatures inside of their dormitories, as only six of the 18 dormitories on campus are equipped with air conditioning. Heat waves are likely to become more frequent and intense in the coming years due to climate change. The college must face this fact, put students’ health and wellbeing first, and renovate residence halls to include more air conditioning and ventilation.
In preparation for this week’s heat wave, the college provided students with one box fan for each room – notably, not each resident – and air conditioning units in lounges within non-air conditioned residence halls. Nevertheless, these measures have largely been ineffective for cooling down rooms. Several students have opted to sleep in their residence hall lounges to escape the poor ventilation in their rooms. Others have chosen to move in with their peers living in air conditioned halls. Some students who braved the heat chose to nap in libraries after sleepless nights in their rooms.
On Sept. 6, Area Coordinators emailed students regarding residents who took matters into their own hands by installing window air conditioning units in their rooms. The email stated that due to electrical circuit strains, students are directed to turn in personal air conditioning units or remove them from campus. Those who do not comply may face disciplinary action for student conduct violations detailed in the student handbook. Threatening students with disciplinary action is not a viable solution. Students should not feel pressured to live in dangerously hot conditions at an institution with a pre-financial aid cost of attendance exceeding $80,000 per year. Furthermore, it is wrong for the administration to penalize students for fixing a problem that could, and should, have been prevented prior.
The growing concerns among students make it clear that the college has not done enough to protect students from the hazardous temperatures. Without support from the college, this week’s heat wave has become intolerable for the majority of students living in poorly ventilated residence halls.
Moving back to school in the fall can be incredibly stressful, especially for students traveling from far away or starting college for the first time. A student’s dorm room is virtually the only private area where they can destress and recharge. The college has a responsibility to ensure that all students living on campus have access to comfortable living spaces that are conducive to learning and de-stressing. Students should not be put at a disadvantage because of poor living conditions and outdated infrastructure.
It is no surprise that this week’s temperatures prompted changes in area school districts. In Pittsburgh, where temperatures were lower than those in the Philadelphia area, school districts closed school entirely. On Sept. 3, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that this week’s heat wave is the longest September heat wave in Philadelphia since 1931, leading more than 70 Philadelphia-area schools without air conditioning to close early, as educators feared that the heat would negatively impact students’ learning.
These fears are backed by countless studies showing that in schools, heat negatively affects students’ learning, academic performance, and emotional wellbeing, and that students living in homes without air conditioning are put at a disadvantage when they do not receive quality sleep. More broadly, extreme heat can pose significant physical health risks to even the healthiest of individuals.
These physical and mental health risks are serious, especially when considered alongside the stressors that Swarthmore students face day-to-day. Amid the large, expensive construction projects on campus — from the building of the geoexchange system to renovations on Martin Hall — the college cannot continue to ignore the dismal conditions in which students live every day and night, and without providing immediate solutions, the college cannot and should not punish students for desperately seeking solutions on their own.
It’s time for Swarthmore’s Campus Renewal Program to include an immediate and necessary improvement to students’ quality of life, safety, and wellbeing: the addition of air conditioning to all residence halls on campus. We recognize the significance of the college’s mission to achieve carbon neutrality but believe that, with the implementation of energy efficient air conditioning systems, it is possible to balance both environmental and human health concerns. In the short term, Swarthmore cannot stay silent on this issue. Students deserve more proactive solutions.