Are hot school start-up days a new trend?

This school year started out hot, so hot that schools here, as well as others across the region, dismissed early several days to save students and teachers from sweating in stifling classrooms. But the heat doesn’t seem to be fueling any loud calls at this point for change to the school calendar or the schools’ cooling systems.

While this isn’t the first time heat has curtailed the school day, since most of Milford’s schools are not air conditioned, it was the first time that locals can remember a four-day string of early dismissals at the start of the school year.

In Milford, school started Monday, Aug. 27, for grades 1-12, and Wednesday, Aug. 29, for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten.

School administrators called for early dismissal Aug. 28, 29 and Sept. 4 and 6 due to high temperatures and high humidity.

“Making the decision to alter the school day schedule is not done lightly but is made, most predominantly, to preserve the safety and health of our students and staff,” said School Superintendent Dr. Anna Cutaia in a statement released when the school year was just getting underway.

She said she takes into account a number of factors, including weather reports and the safety of students and staff.

“This is our primary consideration,” Cutaia said. “We think of activities going on, not only during the school day, but also activities conducted after the school day — such as athletics.

“We use the best guidance available to us, including advice from the Milford Health Department, several city departments, such as Public Works, our team at Durham Bus Company, and, of course, the members of our team here at the district level.

“And, if possible, we try to make the determination as early as we can to give parents more time to plan ahead.”

Most of MIlford’s schools are not air conditioned: In fact only one, Foran High School, out of the district’s 14 schools, is equipped with central air.

So in most of the schools, classrooms can get very hot on hot days. And some of the schools with second floors have additional challenges because the temperatures there tend to be higher, school officials said.

While the string of early dismissals may have been a great way for students to transition into the new school year, some teachers have said the early dismissals set them behind a bit on their classroom plans. But, despite that, it doesn’t look like officials here are ready to strategize new heat plans, such as installing air conditioning in all the schools or changing the school calendar — bear in mind, however, that the school calendar is set each year, and changes can always be made.

“My personal opinion is that weather patterns do change from year to year and extremes are unpredictable,” said Board of Education Chairman Susan Glennon. “Mid-to-late June of 2017 had some record-breaking days in the high 90s while in August of 2017, it never hit 90. The temperatures during the first week of school last year were in the 70s.”

Glennon has a picture of herself and her granddaughter from Aug. 31, 2017, and Glennon was wearing a sweatshirt and long pants. It was 69 degrees.

Air conditioning all the city schools would be expensive, and probably not worth the few weeks where air conditioning might be needed, said the school district’s Chief Operations Officer James Richetelli.

It would cost a half million to three quarters of a million dollars to add central air conditioning to each of the eight elementary schools, Richetelli said. The two middle schools would cost slightly more, and Jonathan Law would cost $1.25 million to $1.5 million.

“It’s a huge amount of money upfront and we’re talking about two to four weeks out of the year,” Richetelli said.

Adding window units to classrooms might seem an option, but Richetelli said while units might only cost $400 to $600 each, the manpower it would take to install and uninstall them several times a year would be costly.

Some classrooms do have window units because of individualized needs for certain students, and it takes two men a total of four weeks, three times a year, to install, uninstall and move the 150 or so window units that are located in the city schools today, Richetelli said.

The cost of electricity is also a major issue.

When East Shore Middle School underwent improvements, central air conditioning was installed for a new eight-classroom addition. That added about $800 a month in electrical costs for the hot months, which includes July and August because summer school is held there, Richetelli said.

Glennon said that during her years on the school board there has never been serious talk about adding air conditioning to all the schools that are without: She doesn’t recall it ever being considered.

“It’s a huge cost for what is a relatively short period of the school year that might have high temperatures,” Glennon said. “I have been heartened by the creative ways I’ve seen staff in our schools help students deal with the heat. They’ve made the best of a less than ideal situation.”

Years ago schools traditionally started after Labor Day, but Glennon said the calendar is set each year based on various factors.

“In terms of the calendar, I am not going to predict what might be decided for next year,” Glennon said. “There are many factors that go into that decision. But what needs to be understood is that for every day the opening of school is delayed, a day needs to be added in June. Considering the likelihood of snow day cancellations, that could push the end of the school year into late June. Last year the last day of school was June 13 after snow days were added on. Had school started the Wednesday after Labor Day, that would have added six school days to the calendar, bringing the last day to June 21 — there is a weekend in there.”

And, Glennon said, it can be just as hot at the end of June as it was at the start of school this year.

The weather patterns

The temperatures that greeted students at the start of this school year were certainly warmer than normal, said Jacob Meisel, chief weather forecaster for SWCT/NY Weather. The average high temperature in Bridgeport is 81 degrees in August and 74 degrees in September, and those two weeks heading into the new school year saw highs easily get into the low 90s. This combined with above average dew points brought heat indices close to 100, making it feel even hotter than it was, Meisel said.

He said it’s very difficult to attribute the high temperatures to global warming or climate change, but studies have shown a relationship between climate change and extended heat waves.
“Attributing any specific weather event to something as broad as climate change is still quite difficult, yet this ‘attribution science’ is improving and one of the strongest links that the National Academy of Sciences has found is between climate change and intensity/duration of heat waves, like the one we [had] here. The exact extent of correlation is still certainly up for debate, but we would expect to see more heat waves of this strength moving forward given a climate base that is continuing to warm.”
He said the way to look at it is not to expect heat like this every year, but rather to expect 100-year heat waves that may begin happening every 25 to 50 years.

“There will certainly be a bias in the summer months towards more heat waves and prolonged warmth, which we’ve observed in past summers but to a greater extent in this one with more consistent above average temperatures,” Meisel added.

He agrees with administrators who shortened the school day when the temperature soared.

“Schools that do not have sufficient AC are likely correct in dismissing early due to the oppressive dew points that increase humidity and have it feel even hotter, too,” he said.