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Northeast Ohio schools weigh closures amid heat wave - current and future

a photo of a school hallway
With a late-season heat wave hitting Northeast Ohio, some school districts with buildings lacking air conditioning chose to cancel classes.

The late-season heat wave has presented school districts across Northeast Ohio with a difficult question: Should schools be closed or remain open?

School officials in Parma, Cleveland and elsewhere have had to weigh the current heat wave against how uncomfortable it can be for students and staff and how difficult it makes learning in non-air-conditioned buildings. They also must weight other factors, like parents’ ability to work and care for their kids when schools close.

The Parma City School District canceled classes Tuesday and was poised to have its first day of classes Wednesday, but decided against it due to the heat. Superintendent Charles Smialek, in a message to parents, said it would have felt like 94 degrees in the district’s buildings without air conditioning based on AccuWeather.com’s “RealFeel” heat index.

He said only two of the district’s 12 buildings have air conditioning throughout the facility. He added the district has closed buildings due to heat roughly once per year over the last six years.

“I think the challenge for us is also to have to think about the next level of, you know, how parents arrange for care (during closures),” he said. “There’s a lot of single-family or single-parent households.”

Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Warren Morgan was working out of Collinwood High School Tuesday, one of CMSD’s 11 buildings without air conditioning. It remained open this week. He said in a message to parents and staff that keeping schools open is important, despite the heat.

“We’re bringing fans and opening up windows to make sure that it’s as comfortable as possible, but we’re also prioritizing instruction because it’s important to be in school today,” he said.

CMSD spokesperson Roseann Canfora said the school district only closes buildings when the heat index is dangerous. CMSD uses the National Weather Service’s heat index, which suggests “dangerous” conditions start at 98 degrees and 40% humidity.

Schools also have other factors to consider during the heat wave. Riverside Local Schools in Painesville closed school Thursday due to the heat and a lack of bus drivers, which would have meant combining routes.

"This would have caused some students be on afternoon bus routes for 60 minutes or longer," spokesperson Nick Carrabine said. "In this heat, it just would have been unsafe."

Scott DiMauro, president of the Ohio Education Association, said “too many” school buildings across the state don’t have access to air conditioning due to the relative age of the buildings and how expensive it is to try to replace or renovate them.

"There are still too many schools that don't have air conditioning," DiMauro said. "There are some schools that have air conditioning in part of the building, but not in the whole building. You know, when we hit these heat waves like we're seeing this week, there are places where you just can't have class in a way that's practical."

DiMauro said it’s on the state of Ohio to ensure that public schools are “fully and fairly funded,” with enough support for school districts to replace aging facilities. The Ohio Facilities Construction Commission provides more than half of the funding for public schools to replace or renovate facilities, but it can be hard for schools to come up with the local share of funding.

Many school districts have to rely on getting local tax levies approved to finance those new facilities. Parma’s last four bond issue attempts to fund a new high school have failed.

Attempts to retrofit old buildings with air conditioning equipment can be expensive, and sometimes it isn’t feasible due to the infrastructure. Thoreau Park Elementary School in Parma is almost 100 years old, Smialek said.

“There's rooms in that building that have like one or two electrical outlets,” Smialek said. "So, you know, you use that for your technology and you're sort of done. I mean, it's not like you can pump a bunch of fans in there.”

Heat waves in the U.S. will continue to worsen and become more frequent due to climate change, scientists say.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.