The academic year is under way for the vast majority of Iowa districts, but classrooms from Tipton to Tama have sat empty as high temperatures spur administrators to shave an hour or two from school days.
Forecasts of weather in the low-to-mid 90s led some districts to shorten their schedules and allow staff and students to exit buildings that may partially or completely lack air conditioning. On Thursday, when temperatures shot as high as 91 degrees in Eastern Iowa, more than 50 schools and districts ended the day earlier than usual.
It’s not a new story for the state, as the first weeks of school often occur during one of the year’s warmest periods. Though state law mandates schools begin the week of Sept. 1, this year, 340 of the state’s 348 districts obtained waivers to begin the school year during mid or late August. However, those extra early instructional days have been cut short due to high temperatures.
The Alburnett Community School District, which began school on Monday, Aug. 20, has had three early dismissals in a row this week. The school buildings are air-conditioned, “but just not enough to get us by,” said Dani Trimble, district superintendent.
Under the current system, districts do not have to report these days to the Iowa Department of Education. As long as students have 5.5 hours of instruction, schools do not have to make up the lost class time.
“That’s the dilemma,” Trimble said. “Have we lost so much due to the heat that we’ve lost the quality education piece?”
At least one Alburnett student welcome the shortened class time.
“It’s so hot and it’s harder to concentrate,” said fifth-grader Bryce Brenneman, 10, who was eager to leave his humid building “so I can get into an air-conditioned place.”
For Brenneman’s mother, Deb, the early dismissals are an inconvenience.
“It’s hard to plan,” she said. “You think you have your day planned out and then they drop a bomb and say they’re getting out early.”
She suggested district day care options would make the shortened days less of a hassle, as would building new schools or providing adequate air conditioning. Another solution she floated is to follow the state statute and begin school after Labor Day.
Trimble said she is not a fan of that suggestion and it might not be the fix it appears to be.
“My experience has been, if we start later, in May and June there are an equal number of distracting factors,” she said. “This is a good time for Iowa to talk about counting cumulative minutes instead of days.”
Minutes vs. days
According to Policy Liaison Mike Cormack, that’s a conversation taking place among the members of the department of education’s School Instructional Time Task Force. He noted that more buildings have air conditioning now than in the past and local-option sales tax funds have helped districts upgrade their cooling systems. Still, early dismissals do result in lost instructional time.
“If you went to the hours system, you would be able to say you have to meet 55 hours over 10 days. With the day system, you can’t do that,” he said. “One of the things students thrive on is routine and when there’s disruptions to that routine, there’s definitely a negative impact to education.”
First-grade teacher Tammy Humpfer, who lives in Toddville and teaches in Alburnett, acknowledged that her students are distracted on days when the weather is warm but educators can make sure learning still happens even when class ends early.
“Well of course you’re losing a couple hours but teachers are very flexible people,” she said. “I just adjusted my day.”
Measuring instructional time by minutes instead of days would allow districts to be more flexible by adding days to the school year or increasing the length of individual days to make up for early dismissals, Cormack said.
“It’s not just the amount of time,” he said. “We feel like that’s one way to make sure the time is used more wisely.”
The task force has one more meeting scheduled before the Oct. 15 deadline for its 18 members to deliver recommendations about the length of the academic year, uniform start date and school calendars to the Legislature, Governor and State Board of Education. The possibility that the recommendation will include a switch to a minutes-based system for instructional time is “more likely than unlikely,” Cormack inferred, and could go into effect as early as the 2014-15 school year if the Legislature votes on the proposal during its next session.
“There can be no net benefit to letting students out early,” Cormack said on behalf of the department. “An hours system would be to the benefit, we believe, to the educational attainment of students.”