Heat Days Force School Schedule Changes

You're probably familiar with snow days. But did you know that schools might also need to be closed for heat days? Teachers and students in Colorado are finding out that starting the school year in mid-August can be not only uncomfortable, but dangerous.

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Too Hot for School

Last summer, Denver faced its hottest August in 139 years. Out of 31 days in the month, 22 saw temperatures of 90 degrees or higher. During this heat wave, thousands of Denver Public School students were sitting in class, often in schools that lack air conditioning. Temperatures in these classrooms were reported to exceed 100 degrees, with some reports of temperatures crossing 105.

Many Denver schools started the 2011-2012 school year on August 10th. Others start on August 18th. While the city is prepared for foul winter weather, with plans for delays and cancellations due to snow and ice if necessary, there were no plans for responding to last summer's unbearable heat. Instead, students suffered, with at least three students succumbing to heat-related illnesses in the first week alone.

Parents Revolt

Parents in Denver were quick to respond. They hastily organized a petition, gathering over 3,000 signatures in support of pushing the start of the school year until after Labor Day. That led to a parent and teacher-led task force on the issue.

The members of the task force created a survey that provided three options: start the school year after Labor Day, start the last week in August or make no changes. They gathered nearly 7,000 survey responses, with close to 40% of the respondents choosing the post-Labor Day option. Among parents who responded to the survey, nearly 70% suggested making some change to the start date.

Changes on the Horizon

In late January, when the heat of August was faint in many people's minds, the Denver Board of Education approved changing the start of school to August 27th. This compromise decision marks progress without resolving the issue of heat danger in classrooms.

In the coming weeks, the board will debate the creation of a plan for heat days. Like snow days, heat days would allow individual schools to close due to oppressive heat. The heat issue could alternatively be resolved by installing air conditioning systems in all of Denver's schools. Yet district officials estimated a $400 million price tag for that project. In a time when education dollars are already stretched thin, providing cooler air appears unlikely.

The parents behind the petition to change the calendar expressed frustration while anticipating the board's decision. They noted that the fourth week of August in Denver is actually hotter than the third week, on average. If August of 2012 is anything like last year's, then administrators in Denver may be forced to return to this issue very soon.

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