Keeping students cool no easy task for some area districts

Keeping students cool no easy task for some area districts

Four places you didn't want to be around lunchtime early last week, when the thermometer flirted with triple digits and the best heat-beating techniques involved dimming lights, cracking windows and keeping water bottles close by:

— Anywhere at Monticello High School other than the air conditioned cafeteria or media center. In a word: "miserable," senior Nicki Sheafe says.

— Either Salt Fork elementary building — the South campus in Sidell ("unbearable," Jennifer Wear says) or the North one in Catlin ("sticky," as fellow teacher Lacey Price put it).

— The oven that is the third floor of 83-year-old Champaign Central, which a single adjective can't do justice.

"The biggest problem," says Central English teacher Carolyn Kodes, "is that when you're so uncomfortable, you can't really concentrate on anything else. The students are moaning, complaining and wilting and the teachers are trying to teach and calculating how much time we're losing to heat days or just the lack of attention and focus.

"And we all get crankier in the heat. Students are more on edge, and teachers have less patience."

While classes carried on in comfortable conditions across most of the area last week, this is the time of year that leaders of schools and districts without air conditioning monitor 10-day forecasts and plan for early dismissals.

"In December, January and February, all school districts in Illinois monitor the weather. In August, September, May and June, Central High School monitors the weather," says Principal Joe Williams, who contends he knows "just about as much as any meteorologist when it comes to dew point, relative humidity and heat index."

His is among the 18 public schools around the area with no or limited A/C. They represent a small chunk of the area's 114 public elementary, middle and high schools — 96 of which are either mostly or entirely kept cool, a News-Gazette survey found — but they include the schools with the largest student bodies in Douglas County (Arthur Grade School), Ford County (Paxton-Buckley-Loda High) and Piatt County (Monticello High).

For eight of the 18, including Tuscola High and Salt Fork's entire district, there's no relief in sight — either short term (high 80s in this week's forecast) or long term (no major upgrades in those districts' future plans).

For others, they'll only have to survive another steamy September — or three:

— Come next fall, PBL will go from a district with one building that's comfortable year-round to all four schools having A/C. It's part of a $31.45 million project that also involves renovating Clara Peterson Elementary, which two second-graders say can feel "like the school is on fire" (Zake Smith) and "like we are inside a volcano" (Sierra Whitaker).

— Monticello has similar plans in place, with a $30 million, multi-school project leading to cool classrooms throughout the district in time for the 2021-22 school year.

— And if the current referendum project schedule holds, portions of Champaign Central could have A/C as soon as this time next year, a district spokeswoman says. Williams is targeting the summer after that, when another phase of Central's $87.1 million, taxpayer-backed extreme makeover is due to be completed.

"There is nothing like the feeling of all-out applause from our staff when we went over the four-year construction timeline at the beginning of the school year and highlighted that we should have all air conditioned classrooms after the summer of 2020," he says. "Thank you, Champaign voters."

Maybe this story will inspire a Samaritan to act at Arthur, Salt Fork or Tuscola.

That's what happened five years ago in Bement, a district of around 300 students that lacked the resources to invest in A/C.

Bement Elementary was built 25 U.S. presidents ago, in 1899. On Sept. 2, 2013, The Associated Press included it in a story about how less-fortunate districts across the Midwest were struggling through a sweltering start to the school year.

A thousand miles away in San Antonio, Texas, the vice president of sales and marketing at Friedrich Residential and Commercial Air Conditioners read the story over breakfast and was moved to act.

Wink Chapman had no ties to Illinois, let alone the Piatt County town of 1,696, but he is royalty these days in Bement after cold-calling Superintendent Sheila Greenwood to say that eight $1,200 window units were on the way — free of charge.

"A complete stranger was like a guardian angel for us," Greenwood says.

The next year, Piatt County's 1 percent school facilities tax went into effect, and Bement was soon able to install A/C in every classroom at every level.

If only Vermilion County schools were so lucky.

Westville Superintendent Seth Miller considers his district fortunate to have A/C in most places. But he feels for his neighbors — like Armstrong Township High, Hoopeston's two elementary schools and Salt Fork's whole district — which would need a significant influx of cash to make their classrooms as comfortable as they are elsewhere in the county.

The school facilities tax that Vermilion voters turned down by a slim margin in March — 3,326 against, 3,299 for — could have been county schools' own Wink Chapman.

"There has been recent discussion about re-proposing the referendum on the county school facility sales tax," Miller says. "If (it) were to pass, it would allow for a dependable revenue stream to improve issues like air conditioning in all buildings."

In Champaign County, a similar tax paved the way for big changes at districts of all shapes and sizes:

— In 2015, sales tax revenue allowed Heritage to install window units throughout the high school in Broadlands and the elementary/junior high in Homer. Everyone — and everything — has functioned better ever since, Superintendent Tom Davis says, noting: "Our technology, which is expensive, suffered (pre-2015) as units would not work well in the heat."

— Fisher's junior/senior high building didn't have A/C until 2013, when the district completed a major renovation using sales tax revenue.

— In 2008, J.W. Eater Junior High was the only building in the Rantoul City Schools district with air conditioning. Two years later, all four elementary schools added it, installing the same geothermal heating and cooling system that Rantoul High put in its hot wing in 2012.

Among the coolest districts in the area: Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley, which Superintendent Jeremy Darnell proudly says is now "100 percent air conditioned" after the summer installation in the elementary school gym. Cerro Gordo did likewise in its high school gym.

Around here, they're outliers. If you're looking for the hottest spot in any district, the gym and the cafeteria are good places to start.

Many of the schools that are otherwise cooled from corner to corner haven't tackled the pricey task of installing air conditioning in those two spaces. The long list includes Arcola High, Gifford Grade School, St. Joseph Middle School and the entire Bismarck-Henning and Prairieview-Ogden districts.

In Danville's 11-building district, only the high school hallways, gym and fieldhouse lack A/C.

Mahomet-Seymour has air everywhere except for the high school's main commons, gym and fieldhouse.

Two things Arthur Superintendent Kenny Schwengel has discovered while running a district with plenty of hot spots:

— It's quite a bit easier to make calls on canceling classes in September than December. "Temperature and humidity are typically more dependable than a weather forecast for snow and ice, which allows us to call it in advance," he says.

— The heat index, which measures how it actually feels when humidity is factored in with air temperature, is a far better indicator than the thermometer. "Last week, it was only in the 80s but the third floor of the high school was miserable," Schwengel says.

In Arthur, the decision to cut short a school day is made via mini-committee (Schwengel and building principals) and includes factors other than weather.

Have there been a full five "clock hours" of instruction time, the minimum required by the Illinois State Board of Education to qualify as a full day?

And, has everyone gotten in lunch? "Feeding the kids is always a consideration," Schwengel notes.

Staying hydrated can also help stave off health issues and make a classroom without A/C more bearable — to a point.

So too can the eight electric fans Jenni Cekander has stationed strategically in her social studies classroom at Monticello High.

Or the many tricks Price has learned over the years:

"Turn off lights, turn fans on highest speed, have an oscillating fan, open windows in the morning but shut them as soon as the sun starts to hit the window, take your class to other areas of the building with A/C for various subjects, have water breaks and allow water bottles, allow students to put cool water on their faces to help cool off, wear tank top dresses and sandals, put my hair up and offer ponytails to students, try to schedule classes with A/C — computer, library, music — after recess ..."

And then there's the old open-the-window-and-put-the-fan-against-it technique Wear has found to be momentarily effective-ish on occasion at Salt Fork South Elementary.

"Although yesterday," she says, "it was just blowing in hot air."

Hot spots

The 18 area public school buildings with no or limited A/C span eight districts:

➜ Armstrong Township: A single-school district, the high school office is cooled and the computer lab has a window unit. And that’s it.

➜ Arthur: Only the new junior high wing of the grade school has it; A/C in the high school is limited to the office and computer labs.

➜ Champaign: 18 of 19 school buildings have A/C — 14 of them central air — but for the short term, Central High has just a few window units.

➜ Hoopeston Area: Both Maple (Pre-K-2) and John Greer (3-5) are limited, with no A/C in any classrooms at the latter elementary school.

➜ Monticello: Says high school senior Payton Tackett: ‘The word I would use to describe how the (A/C-less) classrooms feel is ‘oppressive.’’

➜ Paxton-Buckley-Loda: These problems go away next year: Both elementaries have a few window units; only a quarter of the high school has A/C.

➜ Salt Fork: Other than window units in the computer labs and a couple of classrooms, the vast majority of the district isn’t air conditioned.

➜ Tuscola: North Ward Elementary has it. The district’s two other buildings — Tuscola High and East Prairie Middle School — do not.

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