Oncoming heat wave has schools preparing for student safety; Downers Grove pushes back school start

Tuesday, August 22, 2023
Some suburban schools delay return to class due to heat forecast
A heat wave is about to hit the Chicago area, with the heat index rising well above 100 degrees. Some schools are taking precautions to keep their students safe.

DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. (WLS) -- A heat wave is about to hit the Chicago area, with the heat index rising well above 100 degrees. Some schools are taking precautions to keep their students safe.

Temperatures are set to soar Tuesday through Thursday, with the heat index Wednesday reaching as high as 112 degrees.

READ MORE: How and where to stay cool during the Chicago heat wave

Downers Grove Grade School District 58 told parents Monday they are postponing the start of school from Wednesday to Friday because of the extreme heat.

The district has 5,000 students and 700 staff members in 13 K-through-eight schools, and administrators said all but two of those schools have little or no air conditioning. Superintendent Kevin Russell said he did not want to have to delay the start of the year, and in fact waited until Monday to make sure the dangerous heat was still in the forecast, but in the end the decision came down to safety.

"Staff and kids, there's health concerns. Whenever it's that hot, it is really challenging to sit in a space for six, seven hours. Also, though, we really want to make sure that our learning is effective and that our teachers can be successful delivering their lesson plans," he said.

Russell said the district had the option of remote learning this week, but students do not yet have their devices. They plan to make up the two missed days at the end of the school year.

The district is working to equip the schools with air conditioning. A nearly $180 million referendum passed in November and adding air conditioning to schools by 2026 is part of that plan.

Some other suburban districts are moving ahead with classes but also taking precautions, including holding recess and P.E. classes indoors. They also suggest children with health conditions be driven to school by parents rather than ride non-air conditioned school buses.

At Chicago Public Schools, portable air conditioners are in place as well as large fans, but every classroom as at least one window A/C unit.

"We have extra window units, so again we're going to keep an ear out for any schools that's having any issues," said CPS CEO Pedro Martinez.

Student athletes particularly vulnerable to heat related illness

As oppressive heat and humidity descend on the Chicago area durin the first week of school, sutdent athletes are particulalry vulnerable to heat related illness.

Student athletes can be particularly vulnerable to heat related illnesses during heat waves, since they usually must practice outdoors.

The Barrington High school football team started its final week of practice Monday; the first game of the season is Friday. But it will be difficult to do very much this week with the temperatures. Coach Joe Sanchez said all schools are in the same situation and safety comes first.

"The last thing we want is for any athlete to be put in jeopardy, so we're gonna do our best to adjust as necessary," he said.

Athletic trainer Russ Schellhase uses a special gauge to check the temperature, wind speed and humidity to get the most accurate reading on the heat. According to IHSA rules, those readings determine whether schools may have to cut practices short, and in the case of football may not be able to practice with full equipment.

Recent years have seen a big shift in attitudes about excessive heat.

"The old school was tough it out. Now they let 'em break as much as they want, drink as much water as they want," Schellhase said.

The IHSA rule applies to all sports, including soccer. Schools must take temperature readings every 30 minutes, starting a half hour before practice. Schools also must provide cooling stations, such as shaded areas with ice available, and must provide ample amounts of water that is available at all times.

"We want do what's right for kids. Keep them safe is what it boils down to," said Ryan Rubenstein, Barrington High School athletic director.

Based on the forecast for even hotter conditions later in the week, Rubenstein has already been talking to other schools about possibly rescheduling or moving games to later times when the temperature drops.