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    Let there be shade. New California law paves way for cooler school campuses
    • October 12, 2023

    On a 120 degree day there’s exactly one thing all students in the San Fernando Valley and other high temperature areas seek: the cool relief of shade. But this hot commodity is in limited supply and for a surprising reason.

    Many public school campuses have encountered six-figure cost estimates when seeking to install shade sails, due to California state building requirements. But thanks to a new law the cost of installing sails is expected to plummet and bring the temperature of California school playgrounds down with it.

    SB 515, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom earlier this week, was authored by state Senator Henry Stern, D-Calabasas, whose district takes in a wide swath of the Valley and reaches to Ventura County.

    The sun-soaked Lorena elementary school playground in Los Angeles, Wednesday, September 7, 2022. Concerned parents, teachers and others held a press conference at the school to call out the LAUSD for rejecting warnings about heatwaves and failing to provide cool areas for students. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

    The bill limits the cost of accessibility requirements on shade projects to 20% of the cost of the project, making it possible for schools to install shade sails with no unexpected costs. Previously, affixing a shade sail to the side of a school building would have triggered a requirement to bring the entire building in line with the latest rules for creating pathways of travel for people with disabilities, which typically come with a big price tag.

    On hot days, asphalt surfaces can reach temperature of up to 145 degrees, while the presence of shade structures can lower ambient air temperature by 15 degrees.

    “I have two-year-old who has to walk on 140 degree asphalt and, at the time I was writing this bill, my wife was pregnant, and we’re living in Van Nuys,” said Stern. “So this is self-interested in the sense that this is intolerable and a direct health crisis in my own house, and it is a crisis for millions of other people too.”

    The issue disproportionately impacts low-income students living in densely populated, urban areas. Its passage was met with celebration by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which sponsored SB 515 and played a key role in getting it to the finish line in Sacramento.

    “I am grateful to Governor Newsom for recognizing that extreme heat is a serious and urgent threat to students and for signing this common sense climate solution that cuts red tape to help schools make our campuses greener and more resilient,” said LAUSD Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

    During extreme heat, students lose access to outdoor play spaces or they risk getting heat-related illnesses. In both scenarios, student performance and behavior suffers.

    LAUSD school communities have been clamoring for more cooling projects for years and the district has set a goal for all campuses to be 30% green space by 2035.

    The state has also heeded these calls and this year CAL FIRE made $120 million available for schools to replace asphalt with green spaces, trees and vegetation to provide protection against extreme heat.

    LAUSD Boardmember Nick Melvoin, who represents West Los Angeles and the West San Fernando Valley, sounded the alarm for shade structures specifically about a year ago.

    Related links

    LAUSD invests $92 million in greener, cleaner, more accessible campuses
    LAUSD board sets goal for all campuses to be 30% green space by 2035
    LAUSD parents’ growing effort to bring shade to hot school playgrounds
    LAUSD parents seek relief from extreme heat in school yards and on campuses
    Los Angeles schools are replacing hot asphalt playgrounds with green spaces for kids

    After seeing schools in the West Valley area of his district facing struggles to install shade sails, Melvoin penned an op-ed pointing out the ways onerous building requirements unintentionally held back shady relief that students needed. That caught the attention of Stern, who with the backing of the district and encouragement from more than 275 letters of support from LAUSD staff and families, convinced his Sacramento colleagues to pass SB 515.

    “Our frustration with keeping kids out of the heat led to this new piece of legislation that we think really will enable L.A. Unified, and school districts throughout the state, to (install shade structures) more quickly and more cost effectively, because it cuts some of the red tape and bureaucratic elements that have made this so difficult,” said Melvoin.

    “I think this was a great example of how we can work together with our partners in the state legislature to fix the problem and have cooler heads prevail,” he added.

    Between the installation of shade structures and the ongoing campus greening efforts, the district hopes to see big benefits for students. Research has shown that access to nature can reduce heart rates, anxiety and decrease student disorderly conduct. In addition, year-round access to outdoor play space improves students’ performance, focus and mood.

    LAUSD Board Vice President Scott Schmerelson, who represents the central San Fernando Valley, is eager to see his students benefit from the law, noting that high temperatures on campuses are getting worse.

    “California is experiencing extreme heat waves and dangerous environmental conditions due to climate change,” he said. “Shade structures provide a huge relief when students are outside, possibly preventing serious heat related illnesses.”

    ​ Orange County Register