Worried about the health of students and teachers in stifling classrooms, Minneapolis school officials canceled classes Thursday and Friday in its 27 buildings without air conditioning.
Wednesday's decision came after three days of shuffling kids into cooler rooms or outside, ferrying water, Popsicles and ice into hot classrooms and feuding over where the limited number of fans should blow.
Teachers were also tasked with watching the kids for sign of heat stroke, adding to the pressures of the first week of school.
The district said the successive days of record or near-record heat were taking a toll on students and teachers.
"We could sustain this for a couple of days … but staff members as well as students have been sweating all day long. At some point, we don't want folks to start becoming ill," district spokesman Stan Alleyne said.
Asked if the decision was based on pressure from parents, teachers and kids, Alleyne said it was more about the conditions.
"Even with the extra water and extra fans, they're in hot buildings," he said.
Classes at those sites will resume on Tuesday, after the Labor Day holiday. Students will not need to make up the canceled days, and students are expected to report to the other schools as usual.
District spokeswoman Rachel Hicks said that the district discovered in visits to schools that some listed as having partial cooling in reality only had cooling in small spaces, such as an office. A teacher at Loring Community School took to Facebook to complain that the only cooling there was in the office, the teacher lounge and the computer lab.
Some questioned how much was getting done this week. "There's no learning happening," said Stephanie Pichner, the mother of two Loring Community School students. She held her first-grader out of school Tuesday after a first day in which he seemed on the verge of illness when water failed to arrive.
She praised the school's staff for its efforts but was second-guessing herself for letting her fourth-grader stay in class. "I come home to an air-conditioned home, and I can't believe I let him stay in those conditions," she said.
Alleyne said there were "very isolated" cases of people who went to the hospital for treatment but as far as he knew, none had been admitted.
The situation means that some students in a family will be heading to school Thursday, while others remain home, posing potential child-care issues.
Parent Sandrine Hedrick said her family is already getting Facebook inquiries from families wondering if her two Southwest High School students are available to sit for younger students Thursday and Friday.
"Southwest has no air conditioning, so my kids are really hot," she said. "Sophie had headaches."
Because she works at home, she can handle having a child home unexpectedly, but she couldn't if she were traveling, as she sometimes does.
Kenny Community School parent Maria Fernandez said the decision is common sense, "but the long-term solution is not only starting [the year] later and ending later … but to install air conditioners for Kenny — ideally for all the schools."
"The poor teachers at Kenny, they're suffering," she said.
Costly updates, test pressure
With one school dating to the 19th century, the question facing Minneapolis is whether it's worth retrofitting its aging schools that lack full air conditioning. A capital planning study that's not yet finished estimates the 10-year cost to complete air conditioning of schools that have classrooms without it at between $275 million and $350 million, including inflation. That price poses some hard questions for a school board and district that already may need to build classrooms to handle rising enrollment and is in the middle of a program to replace worn-out building systems.
The alternative to adding cooling is for district to hope for cool weather for pre-Labor Day starts while laying contingency plans to divert district staff to deliver ice, Popsicles and fans to the hardest-hit schools.
That's the approach the district said that it would use when it defended its decision to start before Labor Day for a fifth straight year, something it said would give students more days on task before statewide math, reading and science tests each spring.