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West Aurora early dismissals prompt call for air conditioning

Students shield their heads from sun with backpacks during their early dismissal from Hill Elementary West AurorFriday. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times

Students shield their heads from the sun with backpacks during their early dismissal from Hill Elementary in West Aurora Friday. | Kalyn Belsha~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 2, 2013 6:40AM

AURORA — Jessica Moser, like many West Aurora School District parents, scrambled to find child care last week when the district dismissed students early Tuesday to Friday due to high temperatures, humidity levels and a lack of air conditioning in many classrooms.

Moser, whose son is in kindergarten at Hall Elementary, didn’t call a sitter because at first it seemed like a one-day dismissal. Instead she asked her boyfriend, who works the third shift, to watch her son.

But when day after day she got the email there’d be another dismissal, she realized her boyfriend barely would sleep after working until 8 a.m., picking up her son at 11:20 a.m., feeding him and waiting until she got home in the late afternoon.

“He was up almost 24 hours,” said Moser, who wished the district would have announced the four dismissals all at once. “He’s getting a nice home-cooked meal tonight.”

West Aurora’s decision to release children early as temperatures topped 90 F and humidity caused the real-feel temperature to soar as high as 105 F, caused a stir among parents, alumni and community members on social media.

Some thanked the district for protecting the health and safety of students and staff. Others said the dismissals were unnecessary, that students should have toughed it out.

Parents were upset that children, especially afternoon pre-schoolers, were missing time in class and that new start-of-school lunch and bedtime routines were interrupted.

Many called for the district to bite the financial bullet and install air conditioning in all classrooms, or change the calendar to start school after Labor Day. East Side parents wondered why their children, many of whom also were in classrooms without air conditioning, weren’t being sent home.

Cost to install AC

Mike Chapin, a spokesman for West Aurora, said the district estimates it would cost $25 million to install air conditioning in the buildings that don’t have it: seven elementary schools, two middle schools, the Todd Early Childhood Center and half the high school.

District administrators are gathering detailed figures for the school board, Chapin said, but the age of many buildings makes it costly to install new wiring and electricity.

The hot weather and dismissals might bring the discussion about installing air conditioning front and center, Chapin said, but it’s unlikely the district could pay for it out of pocket.

“We all know what kind of financial times we’re going through,” Chapin said. “The question would be: Could we do it in a way that wouldn’t create a burden on the taxpayers?”

Some parents say AC installation isn’t the wisest use of funds.

“I would rather my kids get out a little early for a few days than not have the learning materials they need or bigger class sizes for a whole year,” Tracie Kettley Fuller posted on Facebook in response to a question from the Beacon-News.

Her two children are in second grade and kindergarten at Hall Elementary.

“I think (District) 129 made the best choice they could and I do not think it teaches our kids anything less than taking good care of their health.”

Brick traps heat

Outside West Aurora’s Hill Elementary Friday morning, students fidgeted while they waited for their parents to pick them up early. Some tried to shield their heads from the sun with their book bags. Sweaty faces, flushed cheeks and matted hair were in abundance. Parents arrived carrying umbrellas to keep cool.

“We could bake dough if we wanted to in there,” said Margo Brunelle, a second-grade bilingual teacher at Hill, who teaches on the second floor.

Hill, the oldest part of which dates back to 1888, is made of brick, a factor the district said played into the early dismissals. Officials said with high temperatures during the day and little relief at night, heat got trapped in the buildings without AC and they never cooled off. Stories above the ground floor were especially hot.

“There’s no cross breeze,” said Hill Principal Cindy Larry. “I brought in ice, the teachers brought in all their coolers.”

Larry rotated the children in and out of the office, where there is AC, and the district brought industrial-size fans for the hallways. A few students got headaches or felt sick, Larry said.

Second-grade teacher Terry Phelps said she saw the naysayers commenting on Facebook about the dismissals, but few know what it’s like to teach in a hot room with high humidity.

“Their hands are sticking to their papers,” she said of her students.

What’s different?

West Aurora says what was different about this heat was the prolonged combination of high temperatures and humidity, which made it feel hotter.

On Friday afternoon, West Aurora Director of Operations Jeff Schiller, who oversees buildings, allowed this reporter to accompany him while he checked the temperature of buildings.

A classroom on the second floor of Jefferson Middle registered 88 to 92 F with the windows closed at 3:10 p.m., when students normally would be in school.

Schiller said this weekend he plans to run the schools’ ventilation systems 24 hours a day to draw in outside air and hopefully cool off the buildings.

Chapin said the district also is more aware than in the past of the health dangers of high heat and humidity, especially for younger children.

“There is some research out now that we follow that a 100-degree heat index is uncomfortable and maybe hazardous,” Chapin said. “We could run the school if it was 93 with low humidity.”

He said in the past when the district didn’t close school or have an early dismissal with similar weather, students and staff had health-related incidents.

Common effects of high heat and humidity in school are headache, nausea, fatigue and fainting, Chapin said. Extra steps have to be taken to prevent risk to teachers who are pregnant, older staffers or those with asthma, he added.

“We use a similar chart for wind chill factors in the winter,” Chapin said. “We have in the past called school altogether when the wind chill gets down to a significant risk of frostbite. This is exactly the same thing, just in the opposite direction.”

No dismissals
at East

Over at East Aurora, Superintendent Jerome Roberts decided not to dismiss early this week, but did cancel after-school activities Tuesday.

Matt Hanley, a spokesman for the district, said to make his decision, Roberts talked to buildings and grounds staff and principals at schools without air conditioning.

Ten East Aurora elementary schools are less than half air-conditioned, as is East High and Waldo Middle. The other two middle schools and one elementary school are at least half air-conditioned. The magnet school, Rollins Elementary and the Early Childhood Center are fully air-conditioned.

Hanley said there is “no set number” that warrants dismissal.

“It’s based on his judgment of the real-feel temperature,” Hanley said. “Not the ambient temperature.”

He added that administrators split up and visited every school in the district during the week checking all elementary classrooms and doing sweeps in the middle and high schools. In any room that was too hot, students were moved to an air-conditioned library or resource room, Hanley said.

Missed time

While some West Aurora parents wondered if school simply started too soon, Chapin said the calendar is tied to the athletic conference the district participates in.

To change it, other schools in the conference would have to agree to start school and games later, which is unlikely, he said, because many have air conditioning.

Many parents also questioned if it was safe for high school athletes to practice after school.

Chapin said heat and humidity poses less risk to older students and that practices were held right after high school dismissal at 10:40 a.m., so students weren’t practicing at the hottest point in the day. Practicing outside is different than being “locked up in heated boxes” he added, and coaches and trainers were on hand to monitor conditions and how hard students could work out.

West Aurora students won’t be making up the time they missed this week, as the district considers them interrupted days. Students need to receive at least one hour of instruction for the day to count, Chapin said.

The high school rotated periods so students didn’t miss the same classes all week and the middle schools shortened periods to cram more in.

But afternoon preschool was cancelled each day, which frustrated Renee Wiseman, whose 4-year-old son attends the Todd Early Childhood Center.

He has a speech delay, she said, so she was worried when she realized he’d miss a full week of school between the dismissals, Labor Day and a school improvement day Tuesday, when there are no classes.

“Our kids are just as much in the program as the a.m. kids are,” Wiseman said. “It’s like, ‘Oh well, sorry p.m. kids. I know it’s only preschool, but I feel like they’re getting left behind.”

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