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Parents hope school district learns from heat cancellations

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Minnesota Hot Weather
Students Linnea Phil and Maggie Chambers carry ice to the classroom of first-grade teacher Tani Langree during the first day of school at Hiawatha Elementary Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, in Minneapolis. Hiawatha is one of the schools that was closed due to excessive heat.
AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Glen Stubbe

Students in about two dozen Minneapolis schools without air conditioning stayed home today after the district cancelled classes due to the stifling heat and humidity.

They will likely stay home from school on Friday, while students in air conditioned schools will remain in class as scheduled. 

Students who are happy to be out of overheated classrooms, at least for a while, include 14-year old Madeline Peak, whose first three days as a freshman at Southwest High School in Minneapolis were unbearable.

"You felt like you were sitting in a little puddle of sweat all day," she said. "It was disgusting." 

When humidity-soaked temperatures in the mid to upper-90s turned the school into an oven this week, it was far too hot to learn.

"Most of the teachers were just postponing until we can think straight," Peak said. 

Although she already has homework, that won't be a problem in an air conditioned house.

Late Wednesday, Minneapolis school officials announced the cancellation of classes at 27 sites in the district where there was limited or no air conditioning. 

Rachel Hicks, a spokeswoman for Minneapolis Public Schools, said district officials want to give students and teachers a break from the heat. 

"We're definitely feeling that we need to have a couple of days where students and staff can recover from that," she said. 

The move came after days of criticism from parents and teachers that the district wasn't prepared for the hot temperatures, and should have considered delaying the start of school.

Hicks said district officials have been monitoring students' health this week and so far have only heard of a few isolated incidents where students have become sick.

The parent of one Minneapolis third grader told MPR News her son suffered a seizure on Tuesday after becoming overheated in a crowded lunchroom.

Minnesota Hot Weather
Parent liaison Lisa Horn distributes ice pops to students in the Hiawatha Elementary School cafeteria on the first day of school Monday, Aug. 26, 2013, in Minneapolis. The school is without air conditioning and struggled through the first day of classes amidst high temperatures.
AP Photo/The Star Tribune, Glen Stubbe

Other parents say they hope district officials learned something from this late summer heat wave. 

"We need to keep our eyes on this the same way we keep our eyes on severe weather, on cold, on snowstorms and have that action plan in place," said Tyler Page, whose five-year old daughter was excited to start her first day of kindergarten at Northrop Elementary on Wednesday.

Page said she was a bit disappointed by the academic start and stop, but seemed to take it in stride.  

Joanne Kaufman, whose son is a 7th grader at Lake Harriet Upper School, said there might be few hot weather problems if the Minneapolis district were to wait until after Labor Day to start school.   

"In a situation like this where they knew several days before the start of school that ... the first couple of days were going to be dreadfully hot, perhaps they need to have some flexibility built in where they push that start back," Kaufman said.

By law Minnesota schools aren't allowed to start classes before the late summer holiday.  

But Minneapolis is one of 40 districts with state permission to start early. This is the district's fifth year with an August start, and the first time classes have been affected by the heat.  

Hicks says the district isn't likely to reconsider the August start date because it gives teachers more time in class with their students. 

By law Minnesota elementary students need to spend 935 hours in class; high school students need 1,020 hours. Minneapolis district officials say no makeup days will be required because of this week's days off.

Some parents question why the district hasn't installed air conditioning at all of its schools. 

Hicks says the district is studying that now and has concluded it would cost $250 million to $350 million dollars, when the district is also trying to find money to lower class sizes and better equip classrooms. 

"At a time when funding is tight we are looking at having to prioritize what it is will help us do us best by our students," she said.

Minneapolis isn't the only district dealing with heat related schedule changes.  

Several schools in southwestern Minnesota, where a group of about two dozen districts have been in school since Aug. 19, have been letting their students out in the early afternoon all week. 

Bruce Houck, superintendent of the Lynd Public School, said he has dismissed students at 1 p.m. each day. 

Despite that, Houck said parents haven't asked about delaying the start of school in the future. 

"Our parents are pretty good about knowing this is to the benefit of their kids and they support us very highly in regards to starting early," he said. 

Houck said the extra time in school has helped increase student test scores, and means an earlier dismissal time in the spring. 

The small K-8 school with 134 students is scheduled to get air conditioning within three years, at a cost of $35,000.