Yesterday would have been a great day to start the school year.
The high temperature was in the upper 70s, but a cool night and morning would have cooled off school buildings. It might have been uncomfortable late in the day, but nothing that couldn’t have been tolerated. The rest of this week looks pretty nice, also. The temperatures may creep up close to 90 degrees, but it appears manageable.
Contrast that to last week, when students, teachers and staff suffered through sweltering days where the temperatures in some classrooms exceeded 90 degrees. Many schools dismissed students early and everyone has to ask if any learning occurred beyond an appreciation for air conditioning and cold water.
The nine-month school year, which is based on an outdated agrarian system, used to begin after Labor Day. Weather is fickle, but in general the heat tapers off in September, making schools without air conditioning at least tolerable. But pressure to perform better on standardized tests, to provide more teacher training, to end classes earlier in the summer and to provide longer holiday breaks have most schools starting class in mid-August. In air-conditioned buildings, that’s not a problem. But in schools without air conditioning, these August days are mostly a sweaty waste of time.
Most Central Illinois school districts without air conditioning dismissed classes earlier all of last week. A few, but not many, also canceled after-school activities.
A solution to beginning-of-the-school-year heat waves isn’t easy. In Iowa, legislators passed a law requiring districts to start school after Labor Day. But the law allowed districts to receive waivers to start the year earlier and this year all but 10 districts requested and received such waivers.
Some districts start school early as a way to add to the school year. That’s part of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s plan for improving results in Chicago schools.
The hot weather, of course, wouldn’t be an issue if schools were air conditioned. But many buildings are not cooled and the cost of installing those systems is prohibitive. “Thinking about air conditioning, we can’t even afford new textbooks,” Bement School District Superintendent Sheila Greenwood told The Associated Press.
School districts should have decided years ago to move away from the nine-month calendar and go toward a year-round school. Air conditioning could have been installed and students wouldn’t suffer from the “brain drain” that occurs each summer. But year-round schools have long been opposed by many parents, teachers and administrators.
Dismissing school early in the day for hot weather isn’t an ideal solution. Many parents have to scramble to find transportation and care for students who are dismissed earlier than expected.
There is no easy solution, but it seems clear that starting school in sweltering mid-August without air conditioning isn’t conducive to learning.