Some Western Mass. school districts opt to end classes early during heat wave

It doesn't take long for the temperature to heat up inside Burncoat High School in northeast Worcester. As of 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, principal Joseph Ewick described his office as "stuffy," adding that conditions are only expected to get more uncomfortable as the day progresses.

"After 12 (noon) is when the building heats up, especially on full sun days," Ewick said.

Worcester is among many communities in central and western Massachusetts that are in the middle of a three-day heat wave where outside temperatures are expected to be above 90 degrees. On Wednesday afternoon, the district said it would dismiss students three hours early on Thursday and Friday and cancel high school athletic games Wednesday and Thursday, for now.

Other districts — including Springfield, Chicopee and Westfield — announced plans to end classes early on Wednesday and Thursday given the lack of proper cooling.

"Heat indices are expected to reach between 95-100 degrees. These temperatures make teaching and learning especially difficult in the majority of our buildings that are not air conditioned," states a message posted to the Westfield Public Schools' website, explaining the decision to end the school day between 11 a.m. and 12:15 pm depending on grade level. Afternoon activities are also canceled.

Lowell Public Schools, meanwhile, announced full-on school closures Thursday and Friday "out of concern for the health & safety of staff and students."

The early school closures aren't limited to this region: schools in the East Coast and parts of the Midwest have also shortened the school day due to heat advisories and lack of AC.

Burncoat High is one of 28 school buildings in the district that don't have air conditioning. Ewick says staff at his school have a few options to make the learning environment less sweltering. Every classroom has at least one fan. Teachers can close the shades or open a window if there's a breeze outside. They can also try to keep kids engaged so that they don't focus so much on the heat, he said.

Still, those efforts can only go so far when temperatures spike as high as they have these past few days.

"People get tired, they get lethargic, they’re seeking breaks to get away from a room without air flow," Ewick said.

In Boston, where the public school system's first day is Thursday, officials said they're working to distribute fans and water bottles to help students and staff stay cool and safe. Despite recent progress to retrofit about 80 schools with window air conditioning units, 14 city school buildings still don't have air conditioning.

"We're being as proactive as possible with all of it," BPS superintendent Mary Skipper said at a press conference Wednesday. "It looks like tomorrow will be the crux of (the heat wave) and then Friday it will start to cool back off again."

Some districts are better equipped than others to deal with the heat. In Brockton, the state's third-largest school district, all classrooms are air-conditioned. But while there are no plans to alter class schedules, an outdoor event for high schoolers scheduled for later Wednesday has been moved indoors, according to district spokeswoman Jess Hodges.

The high temperatures in the region are expected to linger through the rest of the school week. Students and staff will get a break next week when rain moves in and highs will be in the the 70s.

Carrie Jung Senior Reporter, Education
Carrie is a senior education reporter.



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