By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
The Southeastern school district is taking an unusual step to battle the heat that has forced early dismissals this week at schools across West-Central Illinois and Northeast Missouri.
The district canceled classes Friday, using one of its emergency days to give students and staff a break from the hot weather.
"Allowing students and staff to stay home on Friday will make us that much better on Tuesday," Superintendent Todd Fox said.
Fox said the health and well-being of students and staff in the Bowen building, which unlike the high school in Augusta doesn't have air conditioning, was a concern, but so was the loss of valuable instructional minutes for all students in the district.
Early dismissal "counts" as a full day of learning, but "our students are not actually receiving a full day of learning," Fox said. "We only have 175 days with these students, a limited time, and so much to do that it's important to protect those minutes."
Changing the school calendar could be another way to protect instructional minutes.
"Maybe we start a week or two later," Fox said. "I'm not sure if it's after Labor Day or the week before Labor Day. Everybody wants to get out anymore before Memorial Day, but with the extreme heat and conditions the way they are, it's probably not feasible."
In districts with air-conditioned buildings, when to start school is less of an issue. But in districts like Southeastern, changing the calendar is likely an easier fix than trying to air condition the Bowen building, a three-story brick structure dating to 1924.
Fox said students and staff in the Bowen facility have been "outstanding" during the heat wave.
"Despite the temperature what they are, teachers are teaching and students are learning, but it's getting tougher and tougher. This week has been very difficult for everybody," Fox said. "We just need to regroup here, start fresh on Tuesday."
Fox said the state requires school districts to build five emergency days into the calendar, but Southeastern puts in seven.
"That allows us to have some flexibility in situations like this," Fox said.
Using the emergency day allowed Southeastern to contact parents in advance about Friday's plans, but under Illinois law, early dismissals for heat-related reasons cannot be announced in advance or the portion of the day students were in class doesn't "count" as a full day.
Pikeland Superintendent Paula Hawley did what she could to keep parents informed about the possibility of early dismissals.
"I sent out a School Reach message Sunday night saying I cannot call it in advance of the day, but please be prepared for early dismissals," she said. "It gave them a heads-up, but I couldn't tell them what time."
Hawley expects to call another shortened day on Friday in the district which has air conditioning only at Pikeland Community School, serving grades 3-8, but the district had no plans to use an emergency day.
"We're just not going to do that," Hawley said.
Temperature readings showed elementary classrooms at 90 degrees on Thursday morning. "The brick buildings don't cool down overnight. The heat just holds in, the next day gets hotter, and by the end of the week, it's really warm in there," Hawley said.
The district relies on fans and open windows to keep air moving in the buildings, and "the kids have really done OK with it," Hawley said. "We hope to be back to a full day on Tuesday."
Classes have dismissed at 1 p.m. all week in the Brown County School District, where only the middle school has air conditioning. The high school has some window air conditioners, but by afternoon, the building is really warm for students and staff.
In Northeast Missouri, districts announced early dismissals for the week. Hannibal dismissed high school students each day at 12:30 p.m. and middle school students at 12:50 p.m. because those buildings don't have air conditioning.
"Everybody I'm sure is a little bit warm, a little bit tired but coping the best they can," said Rich Stilley, the district's business manager.
Buses are stocked with ice water, and students are moved to the air-conditioned cafeterias when necessary.
"In the morning, it's not bad. In the afternoon, it does begin to warm up. After the students leave, the teachers stay, but they can go to air-conditioned areas," Stilley said. "We're trying to cope, to make it as comfortable as can be."