THE NETHERLANDS — A wave of high temperatures, high humidity and heat indices near or above 100 took over the weather in West Michigan during the week of August 23.
The weather was uncomfortable for most, but especially challenging for many Michigan school districts returning to class during the heat wave. Districts in the area and across the state were forced to change their school schedules because many school buildings lack refrigeration and air conditioning.
Hamilton Community Schools shifted to three half days instead of full days this week, while Holland Christian sent students home early on Tuesday and Wednesday. Grand Haven, Jenison, Grand Rapids, Wyoming, and Ionia were also among the districts that needed to change.
In addition to the inconvenience for families with late changes, it could also affect the future school calendar, as schools must accumulate 180 days and 1,096 class hours per year.
Michigan Department of Education officials pointed to the six days that school districts have lost time, usually snow days.
“The more time students spend in the classroom, the better,” Martin Ackley, director of the MDE Office of Public and Governmental Affairs, said via email. “…School calendars and the resources needed to meet the needs of the school calendars are decisions made by the local school district.”
MDE does not track how many school buildings in the state currently lack air conditioning because it does not require districts to report those characteristics to the state. Ackley said the state is leaving overhead decisions to local districts to decide how best to address the issues specific to them.
“Local school districts are controlling their own spending to provide the safest, healthiest and best environments for their students and staff,” he said. “Those decisions are prioritized by the local school districts. Local school districts may choose to use some of their federal pandemic relief funds for capital costs, such as improved HVAC systems.”
West Ottawa was out of session this week — WOPS the last district to start on Wednesday, Sept. 1 this year — but is arguably the best equipped for the heat. Assistant Superintendent of Finance Jeff Malloch told The Sentinel that the WOPS high school and high school buildings have cooling systems, as do three of the eight elementary buildings.
He added that a few more schools could get chillers and cooling systems from the remaining bond work and the rest will likely be planned for potential bonds in the future.
“We’re definitely on our way, which is different from a lot of schools,” Malloch said.
Although schools only meet in parts of August and June, climate trends from global warming are likely to increase the need for temperature control in buildings during these warmer months. According to a report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, days of extreme heat have become much more frequent around the world since 1950.
In Michigan, climate trends since the early 1900s have also shown steady rises in temperature. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information, the average annual temperature in Michigan has risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the early 1900s, although these temperature increases have usually coincided with warmer winters and springs.
“The challenge is that years ago everyone started after Labor Day,” Malloch said. “With waivers on the rise, some districts are clear in school, some for two weeks, in August.”
The extended school hours in August, coupled with the end-of-year class in June, “definitely” create a two-sided problem for administrators, Malloch added.
“Obviously if we see some of these extreme heat days, it’s an issue that districts need to address. But it’s really a community issue,” he says. “I know districts would love to see voter support, as West Ottawa needed to be able to go out and commit to these things. HVAC that comes with it. price tag it is not something that typical general funds can support.”
Using raw numbers, Malloch estimated a multi-million dollar price tag to install chillers, controls and air handling units for a basic building.
“For some of our basic buildings that are mid-sized, it would cost about $4 million,” he said. “That’s something you really need to have a band for. You can pretty much triple it if you look at a secondary (middle or high school) building. They have more large communal areas such as gyms, cafeterias, foyers and offices.”
For a private school like Holland Christian, a bond to issue public taxes is not an option. This week, however, a company in the region donated window air conditioning units to primary schools in Rose Park and South Side to help keep students cool.
The reality for most schools is that heat issues at the beginning and end of the school year are unlikely to go away and they will likely need community support to address the problem.