New public school heat policy in effect for fall

Monday, August 10, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:02 p.m. CST, Monday, December 14, 2009

COLUMBIA — Columbia Public Schools will make installing air conditioning a priority for those schools still without it. Meanwhile, a year-old, but as yet unused, early dismissal policy for heat will take effect when school starts Aug. 24.

Putting air conditioning in the eight schools will be addressed as part of a $120 million bond issue slated to go to the public in 2010, said Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent for secondary education for Columbia Public Schools.

Heat-related dismissal policy

Only schools without air conditioning will dismiss early for heat. Those schools are Jefferson and West junior high schools, and Cedar Ridge, Lee, Midway Heights, New Haven, Ridgeway and Two Mile Prairie elementary schools.

Dismissal times are 11:30 a.m. for Jefferson and West, and 12:30 p.m. for the elementary schools.

Buses will run normal routes for those schools.

The district will announce early dismissal for heat through the news media, including, on the preceding day, typically by 6 p.m.

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Brown called the situation “a serious priority” for the district, though district officials don't know at this point how much the operation will cost.

Public schools without air conditioning in their classrooms are Jefferson and West junior high schools, and Cedar Ridge, Lee, Midway Heights, New Haven, Ridgeway and Two Mile Prairie elementary schools.

Last year, the district changed its policy on heat-related early release. In the new policy, only students in those schools that are not air-conditioned are dismissed early. The district’s previous policy was to release students from all schools, even those with air conditioning.

The policy was changed because air conditioning was installed in five additional schools, meaning that the heat no longer affected the vast majority of Columbia’s public schools, said Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education. Before that, logistics made it necessary to release all students.

“It was just not possible to run the transportation routes to release only those kids who were in non-air-conditioned schools,” Jensen said.

In deciding whether to declare an early release day, Brown said the district considers a number of factors, including how long the schools have been closed. If, for example, a weekend has passed, and no windows were open in the school, then the temperature in the classrooms is typically higher.

District officials physically go around to classrooms and take temperature readings, Brown said. They then use those readings along with weather forecasts and the heat index to make a decision. The heat index combines air temperature and humidity to determine how hot the body feels it is, which might be different from how hot it actually is.   

Early dismissal for heat is announced the preceding day. “We understand that the situation affects parents and families, so we try to announce the decision by 6 p.m., in time for the evening news,” Brown said.   

Last year, the district did not have to release students early because of the heat, but Jensen said that on average the policy is implemented two to three times a year.

Brown said early release days are built into the district’s schedule, like snow days, and do not have to be made up at a later date.  She said students must be in school for at least 3 1/2 hours on early release days for it to count as a full school day, and the district is required to hold school a minimum of 144 days, and at least 1,044 hours each school year.  

Parents whose children go to Benton Elementary School, one of the five schools in which air conditioning was in operation last year for the first time, were happy to no longer have to worry about whether the district would declare an early release day, said Bethany Morris, a fourth-grade teacher at Benton.  

Morris said early release days were sometimes tough on parents, who had to rearrange their work schedules to ensure care of their children.  

She also said she has noticed an improvement in the attitude and learning experience of her students since air conditioning was installed.

“It’s much easier for them to stay focused and concentrate,” Morris said.  

Laurie Everett, a third-grade teacher at Fairview Elementary, another school at which air conditioning was installed last year, said she has noticed an overall positive change.

“The kids are much more ready to learn when they’re not dripping with sweat.”

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