After heat-shortened week, Philly to reconsider August school start

Students walk to school in Philadelphia. (AP file photo)

Students walk to school in Philadelphia. (AP file photo)

After a heat-shortened week, School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said the district will reconsider its decision to start school before Labor Day.

“I think it’s worthy of another conversation, but taking into account all of what we experienced over the past week,” Hite said Thursday afternoon.

He was speaking shortly after district schools let out early for the third consecutive day because of high temperatures. Though the mercury is forecast to drop significantly Friday, the district already has a half day on the calendar, meaning the first week of school will feature four truncated days.

That’s exactly the type of disruption officials were hoping to avoid when they moved the start date up this year. Rather than start the Tuesday after Labor Day, as was tradition, district leaders decided to start the week prior. They hoped a fuller first week of instruction would help kids and teachers establish momentum, and they promoted the move with an eye-catching social media campaign.

Hite doesn’t think the trifecta of 1 p.m. dismissals hindered teaching and learning too much on the first week of school. He acknowledged, though, the inconvenience for parents who expected kids to be in school all day and the discomfort for students and teachers.

The broader problem, Hite said, is that Philadelphia has to make these types of considerations at all. Only 27 percent of district buildings have central air conditioning. That’s a function, Hite believes, of old schools and insufficient funds.

“Heat shouldn’t be a factor for whether or not children stay in school all day, and, unfortunately, it’s been that way for us for some time,” he said.

Parents, teachers, and students may not be in the clear yet, either. The district is monitoring temperatures next week, which are forecast to reach the low 90s.

The district has had heat-related closures under the old calendar format as well. Since the spring of 2015, schools have dismissed early five times, Hite said: once in May, three times in June, and once in September. When announcing the calendar change, district officials said the heat in late August wasn’t appreciably worse than the middle of June, which has since been lopped off the district calendar.

These days, though, it’d be tough selling that analysis to parents wrangled into early pickups or teachers and students forced to endure hot buildings. This week has been hotter than most in Philly, where temperatures tend to be in mid-80s this time of year. But this type of heat is hardly unprecedented. Take August 29 as an example. Including this year, highs in Philadelphia have topped 90 degrees on that day three times in the last 10 years, according to the service Weather Underground.

Temperatures alone, however, do not dictate early dismissal. Humidity also plays a role, and the district waits for a heat advisory from the National Weather Service before it considers a truncated day, Hite said.

The decision on whether to change the school calendar again will likely come in the next couple of months. Typically, Hite said, the district likes to propose and approve a calendar by the end of December.

There will be an advisory committee on the subject, and Hite expects a lot of participation.

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