Denver district may push back the first day of school to avoid hot weather

An elementary-age girl braids the hair of another girl as they stand amid a group of students wearing backpacks in 2018.
Yadira Rodriguez gets her hair done by Mareli Padilla-Mejia on the first day of school at McGlone Academy on Aug. 15, 2018. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

To lessen the likelihood of unbearably hot classrooms in schools without air conditioning, the Denver district is considering delaying the start of the school year by a week or two.

The school year typically starts in Denver in mid-August, when outdoor temperatures can be in the 90s. In 2019, the outdoor temperature on the first day of school was 98 degrees. Parents and teachers reported indoor temperatures that were nearly as hot: 90 degrees in a special education classroom, 88 degrees in a second-floor middle school classroom.

“I joke that I don’t teach reptiles, I teach mammals,” teacher Lisa Yemma said in 2019.

This year, when students and teachers may still be wearing face masks in August to protect against COVID-19, the district is weighing three calendar options:

Starting school on Aug. 30. This would be two weeks later than usual and several weeks later than surrounding school districts. Under this scenario, school would end on June 3. This option provides the most heat mitigation, but there are tradeoffs. To make it happen, the district would shorten the Thanksgiving break by two days and the winter break by three days.

Starting school on Aug. 23. This would be one week later than usual and later than surrounding districts. The school year would end on June 3, and students and teachers would still get a week off for Thanksgiving and two weeks off for winter break. The drawback is that students would still be attending school in August, when the weather can be hot.

Starting school on Aug. 16. This calendar would represent no change. Most surrounding districts start in mid-August, so Denver’s schedule would align. This is an advantage for teachers who have children in surrounding districts but work in Denver. Under this scenario, school would end on May 25. But this option provides no heat mitigation.

The school board is set to vote on the calendar March 18.

Fifty-five Denver schools currently do not have air conditioning. Six of those 55 schools will get air conditioning this calendar year, according to a district presentation. Another 25 schools are slated to get air conditioning thanks to a $795 million bond passed by Denver voters in November. But most of that work won’t happen until 2022.

Teachers and principals said in a district survey that they prefer the Aug. 23 start date. About half of the 3,471 teachers and 94 principals who responded work in spaces that have air conditioning, and about half do not. The Aug. 23 start date was preferred by both groups.

At a school board meeting Thursday, board member Tay Anderson said he’s heard from a couple hundred parents who prefer the Aug. 30 start date. Some parents are advocating to keep the full Thanksgiving and winter breaks, and end school in mid-June, he said.

“I’d love to see what an Option D would look like with maintaining all breaks and going into that second week of June,” he said. “If it’s not the consensus of the board, then I lose this one.”

While the second week of June is generally cooler than August, district officials said ending the school year that late could interfere with summer programming. The district offers summer school for young students struggling with reading. Because attendance tends to drop off after the Fourth of July holiday, the district prefers to offer that programming in June. 

Ending the school year in mid-June could also interfere with summer internships or with high school students who want to take college courses through local universities, officials said.

But board member Scott Baldermann said he also prefers a start date of Aug. 30 or later, especially if schools can’t use portable cooling devices due to concerns about COVID spread.

“I’m envisioning kids and staff still wearing masks and the sweat dripping off their face and absorbing into their masks, so they’ve got these soggy masks they’re wearing around all day,” he said. “I just think anything prior to Aug. 30 is a bad idea.”

However, three other board members said they’re leaning toward starting earlier than that. 

Angela Cobián cited concerns about child care. She said many of the parents who’ve advocated for the Aug. 30 start date are English speakers, and she worries that the voices of parents who speak languages other than English, and may be front-line workers, aren’t being heard.

“Having schools being able to start sooner alleviates economic pressures, especially for women and women of color,” Cobián said.

Board President Carrie Olson and board member Brad Laurvick called the Aug. 23 date a good compromise. Adjusting the calendar by one week a year might be an easier way to eventually get to a later start date that alleviates heat concerns, Laurvick said.

Parents, teachers, and community members can sign up to give feedback at a virtual public comment meeting to be held on March 16 before the March 18 vote.

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