COLUMBIA — The Columbia Public School District starts classes on Thursday, and those schools without air conditioning are preparing for possible excessive heat and humidity. Plans include putting fans in every classroom, taking lots of water breaks and possible half-days.
The National Weather Service is forecasting the rest of August to be warm but manageable, with normal highs of about 88 degrees, said Jim Kramper, warning coordination meteorologist in the St. Louis office.
But normal highs in a classroom that isn't air-conditioned could bring learning to a sweaty halt.
"When the temperature gets to a certain degree, it is hard for the students to concentrate," said Wanda Brown, assistant superintendent for secondary education. "We will make sure (teachers and nurses) are monitoring heat-related issues."
When the combination of heat and humidity is unbearable, the district will call for early dismissals in those schools without air conditioning. Jefferson and West junior high schools will be dismissed at 11:30 a.m. Lee, Midway Heights, New Haven, Ridgeway and Two Mile Prairie elementary schools will be dismissed at 12:30 p.m.
In deciding whether to dismiss classes early, factors including temperature, humidity, heat index and feedback from the schools will be taken into account, said Michelle Baumstark, community relations coordinator for the district. A decision will be made the night before, and the news media will be notified before 10 p.m.
Back-to-school nights for parents this coming week will lay out the early dismissal plans for the affected schools, Baumstark said.
Patti Raynor, principal of Two Mile Prairie, said though she is concerned about her students not being able to concentrate, she hopes the school can tough it out.
"We will have lots of windows open so there are a lot of breezeways in the school," she said. "We have some air conditioning in the building for relief."
Raynor said teachers might take students outside in the shade if it's cooler than in the building.
"I think it wears them out, but they are still capable of learning, and our teachers are such great professionals," Raynor said.
Ridgeway plans to open the building early to get the air flowing, principal Ben Tilley said. Rotation schedules will be set up for children to get some relief from the heat in the few air-conditioned rooms.
Jefferson Junior High is putting multiple fans into every classroom and will allow students to carry water bottles for the first two months of school, principal Gregery Caine said.
He said he is concerned about the heat draining the students and teachers.
"You have students spending five, six or seven hours in the heat," Caine said. "It definitely makes you more tired and less energetic. It's more difficult to sit and learn."
Caine said he wants to make sure his students have the same learning opportunities as those in schools in with air conditioning.
"If we have a particularly warm August into September, it could impact the amount of education hours," he said. "We don't want that."
Each school has a certain number of heat and snow days built into the calendar, Baumstark said. If a school goes over that number, days might need to be added to the end of the year. Half days count as full days of school, she said.
On early dismissal days, lunch will be served before students leave, and bus transportation will be available, Baumstark said.
Parents will be required to fill out emergency cards as part of the enrollment process to be used during such situations, she said.
Ridgeway parents will fill out the cards during the school's ice cream social Tuesday night and will get a copy of the heat dismissal notice, Tilley said.
"On the cards, parents will be able to tell the schools how they want their children to go home in case of heat-related dismissals," he said.
Another way parents can be informed about the early dismissals is through text messaging alerts from Columbia Public Schools by signing up on the district's website. The text alert is a free service — standard text messaging rates do apply — for parents to receive alerts on early dismissals and emergencies, Baumstark said.
Early dismissals related to heat should not be an issue for Columbia Public Schools in a few years. In April, voters approved a bond issue that will pay for air conditioning in the seven schools without it.
Raynor said she is thankful for that. For now, she said, "You just do the best you can do and hope you can get cool weather."