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St. Paul classroom too hot for teacher at 101 degrees

ST. PAUL -- Inside at least one St. Paul Public Schools building Tuesday, May 29, it was hotter than it was outdoors.

Two-thirds of district schools have no air conditioning, prompting officials to deliver hundreds of fans and thousands of water bottles as temperatures hit 90 for a sixth consecutive day.

Mark Westpfahl found his Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet classroom at 84 when he arrived for work Tuesday. The school’s thermometer doesn’t go any higher so the teacher brought his own, which registered 94 around 11 a.m. and 101 later in the day.

He said in a noon email to district leaders, which he shared with the St. Paul Pioneer Press, that he’d already sent more than a dozen students to the nurse’s office.

“I am most concerned for my Muslim students who are fasting during Ramadan,” he wrote. “I have had more than a dozen students this past Friday come up to me, several in tears, begging me not to tell their parents that they are breaking their fast.”

Capitol Hill, which shares its building with Benjamin Mays elementary, has an air conditioning system but it’s being repaired.

Westpfahl said students had taken to lying on the tile floor in search of relief.

A/C deemed too costly

The St. Paul district doesn’t consider air conditioning a necessity at most schools because they’re closed during the year’s hottest months.

Outside temperatures hit at least 93 on Tuesday, 20 degrees above the typical high.

“Historically, we’ve been very conservative about energy usage and trying to make sure we spend money efficiently,” facilities director Tom Parent said.

Parent said secondary schools — those with bigger bodies and bigger buildings — generally have air conditioning, but elementary schools do not.

The district is in the midst of a major effort to improve its facilities. Five of the projects include new or improved cooling systems, at a construction cost of $16 million. Parent said Johnson, Humboldt and Como Park high schools will get air conditioning for the first time.

For elementary schools, Parent said, they’re looking at a cheaper option that pumps humidity out of buildings.

“Our focus has been on not providing blanket A/C coverage just because of the significant cost of not just installing but operating,” he said.

During facilities planning, Parent said, they calculated that installing air conditioning at every school slated for mechanical work in the next five years would have cost $29 million in construction plus $300,000 in annual utility costs.

Some cope, others stay home

To cope with the heat, the district delivered 2,000 water bottles and 361 fans to select schools. An automated message to families Monday encouraged students to bring water and cool, wet towels for their necks.

“We’re trying to help our schools manage this heat as best we can,” Parent said.

He said the district has been ventilating buildings in the hours before school to move in cooler air, but that was of little help after Memorial Day’s record-setting heat.

District spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey said there was not a noticeable increase in teacher or student absences Tuesday.

However, some parents did keep their kids home to make sure they’re comfortable.

Star McMaster said she kept her three children home from American Indian Magnet. All three were sweating in class last week, she said, and two have asthma that is aggravated by the heat.

“If they have enough money in their budget to provide all the children with iPads and Wi-Fi at school, they should be able to have some kind of A/C unit,” she said.

Jessica Moeller said her son at Humboldt High School also has asthma. She kept him home Tuesday, along with his two younger siblings.

“They just should call school off when it’s this hot,” she said.

That’s what Minneapolis Public Schools did in August 2013 at the end of a hot streak. Today, 41 of that district’s 60 school buildings are fully air-conditioned, and five more will get cooling systems in the near future, officials say.

Stewart Downey said the superintendent decides whether or not to cancel school. The St. Paul district has written guidelines for cold- and snow-related cancellations but not for heat.

Study: Too hot to learn

Hot classrooms have a measurable impact on student learning, according to a working paper circulated this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The paper, which has not undergone peer review, examined outside air temperatures and the scores of 10 million U.S. high schoolers who took the PSAT exam more than once.

The authors concluded that “on average, a 1 (degree) hotter school year prior to the exam lowers scores by 0.002 standard deviations or slightly less than 1 percent of a year’s worth of learning.”

They said the statistical analysis backs up anecdotal evidence that teachers and students don’t function as well when they’re overly hot. Air conditioning was found to have reduced the negative effects by 78 percent.

McMaster said her child’s pre-K teacher brought a fan to school but couldn’t trust that the youngsters would keep their hands away from the blades. The school’s windows open, she said, but on such a hot day the wind is of little comfort.

So, after much consideration, the kids stayed home with Dad.

“We want them to concentrate on their studies, but that’s hard to do if you’re hot,” McMaster said.

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