Association of Texas Professional Educators
Association of Texas Professional Educators

Texas Schools vs. Mother Nature: An Ongoing Battle

Texas Schools vs. Mother Nature: An Ongoing Battle

By Jack Densmore

In Texas, severe weather comes in many forms—raging hurricanes smashing into the coastline, extreme heat and drought, wildfires, winter storms, tornadoes, and flash flooding. As the saying goes, if you don’t like the weather in Texas, wait a minute.

Summer 2023 ranked as the second hottest on record—just below 2011. The average summer temperature for this year was 85.3 degrees, which is 4 degrees above the average temperature for the 20th century, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as Texas State University climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

Texas schools have dealt with copious severe weather events in just the past few years, with the most recent challenge being extreme heat/drought.

Texas Schools vs. Extreme Heat/Drought

On top of the higher-than-average temperatures, Texas also experienced a significant drought in 2023, with 81.9% of the state feeling its effects in late September, especially in Central and East Texas. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 41.2% of Texas was in a moderate or severe drought in September.

The heat takes a toll on air conditioning units. Around the time school started this year, Austin ISD faced air conditioning issues at McCallum High School and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy. Thankfully, these issues were fixed quickly. In November 2022, Austin voters approved a $412 million bond to improve air conditioning among other critical needs, such as life safety systems, plumbing, etc. McCallum is one campus targeted for improvements by the bond.

The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, or HVAC, problems are not isolated to Austin ISD. Tyler ISD has faced similar challenges as well.

“We have had some HVAC units fail [that] were fixed quickly,” Tyler ISD Supervisor of Maintenance Services Robert Grant says. “While [they were] being repaired, we brought portable units and fans to keep students and staff cool. In some cases, students were relocated to a portion of the campus, such as the library, that did have air conditioning.”

AC issues extend beyond Texas. In 2020, the Government Accountability Office reported that an estimated 36,000 schools nationwide need to have HVAC systems upgrades or replacements. This amounts to about 41% of school districts across the country.

The heat not only disrupts the classroom but also sports and extracurricular activities. Several school districts have had to delay the start times of football games because of the heat, including Tyler, Rusk, and Leander ISDs.

Leander ISD also had to change its recesses to combat the heat. Under the Leander ISD Health Services Hot Weather Guidelines, temperatures over 100 degrees prompt recess to be moved indoors.

But while the Texas summer heat will always be a challenge for school districts, the past few years have also brought the polar opposite: severe winter weather.

Texas Schools vs. Extreme Winter Weather

Winter storms are now infamous in Texas after Winter Storm Uri in 2021 and Winter Storm Mara in 2023, both named by the National Weather Service.

School in Marlin ISD was canceled for five days after Winter Storm Mara because the area was without power, which also affected the district’s food supply.

“It was all of our food reserves,” Marlin ISD Superintendent Darryl Henson says. “We get food deliveries weekly, and any food that we had stored for the upcoming week in the refrigerator and freezer space was now not good. That’s not only milk. That is all your cold storage items, to include your vegetables, lettuce, and carrots.”

Trees throughout Marlin froze, and many fell over due to the ice, which resulted in electrical poles being damaged or knocked over as well. The elementary and middle school campuses in Marlin ISD were directly out of power, with about 700 students unable to return to school.

“We didn’t want any student or any employee coming on property when you have power lines down in water,” Henson says.

To prepare for future winter storms after Uri, a bond was passed in November 2022 to upgrade Marlin ISD schools, including infrastructure upgrades for both extreme heat and cold situations, such as replacing HVAC units and upgrading piping. The district is currently looking for ways to track and monitor when pipes burst.

“We’re going to use those funds to be very proactive knowing that weather in Texas is very unpredictable,” Henson says.

Winter Storm Uri affected many across the state, including Arlington ISD, which had seven schools unable to open. This included an elementary school with broken overhead sprinklers that flooded classrooms, according to ABC13.

In 2022, another winter storm caused school closings in Dallas and parts of Central Texas. For many superintendents, it’s not a matter of if Texas will experience a winter storm but when during the season it will happen.

Texas Schools vs. Natural Disasters

Texas Schools vs. Natural Disasters Wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and flash flooding plague school districts across the state.

Wildfires can be tricky, as they can be either natural or man-made. Droughts often lead to dead grass and crops, and simply parking a car in long dead grass on the side of the road is enough to spark the next big wildfire. Lightning is also a culprit, but man-made causes—including cigarette butts and fireworks—can be just as dangerous.

Lefors ISD experienced a scare in September as a wildfire erupted in Gray County. Students were evacuated to Pampa, and at one point what was deemed the “Thut Hill Fire” burned an estimated 1,295 acres at 80% containment. However, all students and staff were safe.

Winona ISD had one of the closest calls possible when a tornado touched down on the Winona High School campus at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year. The tornado was an EF-1 on the Enhanced Fujita scale. This clocks the tornado as having 86-110 mph wind speeds. Winona also sits in the middle of Tornado Alley.

“We’ve seen quite a few [tornadoes] around us in Winona, Lindale, and Canton over the last 10 years,” Winona ISD Superintendent Damenion Miller says. “They’ve been hit pretty hard on a regular basis, but this made approximately two years in a row that the area was affected.”

It was a normal day with no forecasted storms, Miller says, until the district’s grounds crew spotted the tornado forming in the sky and radioed the situation to the district’s police chief.

The school was immediately placed in a tornado lockdown with students curling up in the hallways waiting for the danger to pass.

In the meantime, the tornado swept first through the school’s greenhouse and a storage building before making its way to the baseball field and ripping the roof off of the home dugout. The tornado moved through the student parking lot, hurling debris of all kinds before wrapping around the building and damaging the school’s roof. It then turned its attention to a geometry and construction storage building project and picked up the building.

“It picked it up and made it look like popsicle sticks,” Miller said. “We never found the roof. There’s no telling where the roof is at.”

The tornado cost the school about $450,000 in roof repairs and $200,000 in damages to other buildings. Luckily, there were no injuries.

Coastal school districts face the threat of one of the most destructive weather events on Earth: the hurricane. Hurricanes can bring an “all of the above” situation combining flash flooding, tornadoes, power outages, electrical fires, and damaging winds.

This year, Texas has only experienced a tropical storm, which did cause some school closures and delays, but in previous years, hurricanes left a devastating impact. According to the Save the Children charity organization, Hurricane Harvey caused a total of $125 billion in destruction overall with nearly 3 million children living in a disaster-declared county and 1.4 million children missing at least one week of school due to the hurricane.

Preparing for the Unpredictable

Although little can be done to prevent these extreme events from happening, school districts are doing their best to upgrade their buildings’ infrastructure and lessen the damage, much like in Marlin.

Although school districts aim to provide that level of preparation, Miller provides another tip for educators to be prepared in a severe weather event.

“We now have operation stations located in our safe environments,” Miller said. “All of our manuals, all of anything you would need to start communication, is in that location and in your office. So, it’s going to be in that location where you must shelter in place because you will not have time and you will not be able to move once you go into lockdown.”

Emergencies can develop rapidly, so educators and schools need to have plans in place and employees trained to quickly respond to such situations. outlines several emergency preparation resources, including a guide for developing emergency operations plans (EOPs). In the case of a tornado, there are a lot of moving parts when enacting an EOP, and they all have to happen within that 90-second response time. This includes moving students to a secure area, including those who have disabilities or functional needs.

In the ongoing battle between Texas schools and severe weather, routinely performing drills and exercises are important for both students and staff to stay prepared for whatever mother nature has in store.

“So you had better be ready,” Miller said. “Basically, it comes down to this: you have a minute and a half to get into position.”

TASB’s Tips to Prevent Severe Weather Damage in Schools

In 1974, the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) Risk Management Fund was created, which—among other things—helps provide coverage for public schools in cases of severe weather. TASB also provides seasonal recommendations for school districts to follow, including developing a severe weather annex as part of the district’s emergency operations plan (EOP).

Joanie Arrott, assistant director of risk solutions for TASB Risk Management Services, explains: “Your annex identifies specific severe weather risks the district might face and documents how you will protect your staff, students, community, and property.”

According to Arrott, TASB suggests school districts prepare for extreme winter weather by:

  • Covering exterior water faucets and pipes with insulation.
  • Inspecting, cleaning, and repairing HVAC systems.
  • Testing backup power supplies and reviewing emergency shut-off procedures for sprinkler systems.
  • Ensuring exterior doors safely close and are secured.

Throughout the winter season, it is recommended that districts:

  • Keep roofs, eaves, and awnings clear of any snow or ice.
  • Check roofs and ceilings for any loose shingles.
  • Keep boilers running at 50 degrees or higher, if possible.
  • Protect fire sprinkler systems against burst pipes.
  • Repair leaky doors, windows, and cracks.
  • Prohibit staff from using space heaters.

When severe winter weather is forecasted, it is recommended that districts:

  • Open doors to sink cabinets and other areas with pipes to allow warm air
to circulate.
  • Consider shutting off water to facilities and draining pipes—but remember, this could prevent your fire sprinkler system from working. Check with the system manufacturer or installer, and note that some districts might need fire marshal approval to shut off water.
  • Move or elevate items you want to protect from water damage, such as computers, hard-copy records, books, and electronic equipment.
  • Designate someone to regularly check property for broken or leaky pipes during periods with freezing temperatures.

In the case of extreme heat, TASB recommends that districts:

  • Use a data source to monitor soil moisture risks in the area so you know when to take steps to protect buildings from settling.
  • Water the ground around buildings to ensure minimal settling of foundations.
  • Consider commercial rain collection systems or graywater collection to ensure adequate water supply when water restrictions are enforced.

In the case of a hurricane, a quick response is necessary:

  • Initiate your emergency operations plan.
  • Board up windows.
  • Turn propane tanks off to reduce the risk of explosion.
  • Secure or remove equipment and other loose outdoor property that could become dangerous projectiles.
  • Turn refrigerators and freezers to the coldest settings to keep food from spoiling.
  • Move or elevate items you want to protect from water damage, including computers, hard-copy records, books, and electronic equipment.
  • Move buses and other vehicles to higher ground when possible.

A school district can make all the necessary preparations, but Mother Nature can still cause great property damage and loss.

“Losses related to severe weather are driving property coverage costs to historic highs and putting additional pressure on budget-strapped schools,” Arrott says.

When preparing for severe weather, Arrott highly recommends that school districts make sure their facilities’ roofs are the best they can be.

“The process starts with purchasing the right roofs,” Arrott says. “The Texas Education Code requires districts to reduce their energy consumption by 5% annually. Thin roofs can help achieve that goal, but we urge districts to also consider whether their roofs will stand up to the climate in their region.”

According to Arrott, Texas leads the country in hail events, and thus choosing hail-resistant roofs can help districts avoid unbudgeted expenses and operational disruptions from having to make repairs or replacements.

“From there, we want districts to commit to a roof preventative maintenance plan that includes at least two annual inspections,” Arrott said. “Spring and fall are good times to inspect roofs ahead of changing weather. We also recommend districts inspect roofs after severe weather and construction projects on-site or nearby. Before anyone accesses school roofs, make sure they have the training and equipment to do the job safely.”