Philly school dismissals: How extreme heat impacts families | #schoolsaftey

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The School District of Philadelphia ended the first week of school under scrutiny over how it handled early dismissals. At issue is whether the district properly planned for the unexpected hot temperatures that led to tens of thousands of students being dismissed early from school the first week.

At its peak, heat index values hit 100 degrees and temperatures soared into the 90’s all week.

The district announced on Sept. 1 that 74 school buildings would close three hours early on the first two days of school because the buildings did not have adequate air-cooling systems to withstand the hot temperatures.

By mid-week, the district announced the list had grown to 86 school buildings, as some schools’ AC units began malfunctioning, forcing them to unexpectedly close early.

The district’s Extreme Heat Emergency Response Procedures go into effect when outside temperatures are expected to reach or exceed 85℉ for one or more consecutive days.

Last week’s early dismissals likely impacted upwards of 38,000 students, based on last year’s enrollment data for the schools that closed early. The district’s list of 86 school buildings included two annex buildings, which are not included in this estimate, and a spokesperson later confirmed that one school on the list did not dismiss early.

At Spring Garden School in North Philadelphia, parents and staff endured the heat as the temperatures climbed Wednesday morning.

Students were dismissed from the Spring Garden School in Philadelphia early due to heat on September 7, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Leetonia Walton arrived to pick up her daughters and their  friends.

“They had two whole years during the COVID time to get installation, clean it out, new piping and air in there for them kids!  It don’t make no sense,” she said.

Leetonia Walton met her kids Azariah (left), Tyrone (second from right) and their friend Mason (right) pose for a photo outside of the Spring Garden School.
Leetonia Walton met her kids Azariah (left), Tyrone (second from right) and their friend Mason (right) outside the Spring Garden School after they dismissed early due to heat on September 7, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Outside the school, built in 1931, you can see a handful of air conditioning units hanging out of some but not all windows. The school does not have central air, nor does it have AC units in most of the classrooms.

Venus James’ kindergartener attends Spring Garden School.  James says that in the short time her daughter was in class, she was concerned for her child’s safety.

“Her getting sick, falling out or being cranky,” James said. “ She still has that toddler behavior.”

The district announced on Wednesday that impacted schools would also close early Thursday and Friday.  However, for many parents, picking up their children and finding alternative care options proved to be difficult and expensive.

“It is a pain, I did have to take a Lyft [ride] to come to get here today and pick him up early so that’s extra money that I didn’t have to come get him,” said Tiffany Athy, who had to leave work early and pay for a rideshare service to pick up her son Ryan.

Athy says that the students in her North Philadelphia neighborhood do not have after school care available, which forces many of them to find other child care options — including taking off work to watch their kids and again losing money.

“For single parents, we have to sacrifice work to be with our kids.  We are in a no-win situation because if we don’t go to work, we can’t provide for our children and the government doesn’t give us anything,” said Athy.

Walton also expressed concern about her daughters, Azariah and Mahala, along with the other kids’ safety.

She says without after school care available and transportation options for parents to get their kids midday, she is helping other moms by bringing their children into her home.

Her daughter Azariah Gibbs, 9, says it felt cooler outside her classroom than inside.

“It feels too hot, and I feel like I’m sweating. Sometimes they let us get water and they put the fan out,” Azariah said.

Besides the learning challenges, and safety concerns, Azariah said she worries about her sister, Mahala, who has asthma.

“I came and I was really sad and I said OMG why is there no air?” Azariah said.

“Mahala has asthma and she’s going to pass out, and that could happen [because] she can’t deal with the hotness.”

These students and parents’ experiences are not unique.

In all, more than 57% of school buildings in the district don’t have adequate cooling systems or air conditioners.

A few air-conditioning units can be seen in the windows of the Spring Garden School in Philadelphia.
A few air-conditioning units can be seen in the windows of the Spring Garden School in Philadelphia. The K-8 school was dismissed early due to heat on September 7, 2023. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But the question that remains on the top of everyone’s mind is: Why?

For some it’s an easy answer.

“This is a huge symptom of historic underfunding, and one of the best examples I can point to quite frankly,” said School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington, who blamed the issue on a lack of resources.

Watlington says workers did their best over the summer to improve building infrastructure.

“Our team got into the buildings and installed air conditioners in a number of our schools this summer, we don’t want to paint the glass as half empty all the time in Philadelphia,” he said. The district invested $285.7 million to improve electrical and HVAC systems in 23 schools with a focus on those serving elementary students, district officials said.

“We are taking several measures to help maintain healthy and comfortable classroom conditions,” said Oz Hill, chief operating officer for the School District of Philadelphia, in a press release.

But district data suggests younger students may have been disproportionately impacted by last week’s early dismissals.

Approximately 39% of the roughly 75,000 students that attend a district-operated, non-alternative elementary, elementary-middle, or middle school were dismissed early at some point last week, according to last school year’s enrollment data. Meanwhile, fewer than 24% of the roughly 37,000 students that attend a district-operated, non-alternative high or middle-high school were dismissed early last week, according to last year’s enrollment numbers.

WHYY News’ analysis did not include the two annex buildings that were dismissed early last week, which were both at elementary-middle schools.

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