West, Jefferson dismissing students early for 8th time as heat continues

Tuesday, September 4, 2012 | 8:51 p.m. CDT; updated 12:22 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 5, 2012

COLUMBIA — Wednesday will be the eighth day this year that Jefferson and West junior high students will be dismissed at 11:30 a.m. because of heat conditions.

Smithton Middle School will also release its students early, at 11:45 a.m. Wednesday, because of a problem with its air-conditioning unit. District spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said she hopes the unit will be fixed in time for classes Thursday.

Jefferson and West are the only two public schools in Columbia that don't have air conditioning throughout the building. Baumstark said that because of their age, both buildings are difficult to air-condition; they were built for air flow from windows, not modern air conditioning.

Jefferson Junior High School, at 713 Rogers St., is a little more than 100 years old. West Junior High School, at 401 Clinkscales Road, is 51 years old.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a high temperature of 99 degrees Wednesday with a heat index as high as 102 degrees. During the morning while class is in session, both schools will have water breaks and fans in the hallways.

The continued heat dismissals for Jefferson and West will not affect the length of the academic year because students do not have to make up these days, Baumstark said.

These heat dismissals will still count as full days. Students attend all of their classes and go to lunch — although both are abbreviated — and regular bus routes run.

Also, Baumstark said, there is no limit to the number of early dismissals the district authorizes as long as they don't interfere with the state’s requirements of 1,044 class instruction hours per school year.

The district plans to present bids for air conditioning at West and Jefferson to the Columbia School Board in October, she said. The estimated cost for each is $3 million to $4 million.

The timeline depends on information from the proposed bids and the extent to which the buildings must be changed to accommodate air conditioners.

Baumstark said it’s not as simple as plugging an air-conditioning unit into the buildings. Engineers will most likely have to redo electrical work in the buildings, replace the windows and possibly work on the ceilings.

The ideal time these changes would occur would be summer 2013 for one building and summer 2014 for the next building, Baumstark said.

Reactions from parents about the string of heat dismissals have included understanding the safety concern for students and worry that the dismissals are hurting the level of education their children receive, Baumstark said.

Because of the number of classroom hours lost, teachers have had to provide more instruction in less time.

"Teachers are doing the best they can in the situation they've been given," Baumstark said. "Safety is the most important thing here. High-quality education is not possible when the building is as hot as it is."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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