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New York State teachers union calls for action to ensure safety on hot days

Eighth grade students in a science classroom at

Eighth grade students in a science classroom at the Longwood Junior High School in Yaphank. Classroom air conditioning can eliminate the effect of heat on cognition, a report says. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

The searing heat that greeted teachers and students this week as the school year began prompted the state teachers union to call for legislation that would require school districts to develop policies to keep everyone safe in classrooms that lack air conditioning.

The union, which is asking teachers to keep track of classroom temperatures, also wants the state Education Department to develop guidelines and procedures for closing schools when safe temperatures cannot be maintained.

“Although it’s just the first week of school, it is already too hot for teachers to teach and students to learn,” New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta, a former elementary school teacher in New York City, said in an emailed statement.

Students’ attention can be adversely affected by heat, which also can trigger heat exhaustion and heat stroke, according to Wendy Hurd, the union’s health and safety specialist.

A spokesman for the state education department was not available Thursday.But a spokesman for the William Floyd School District, one of the Island’s largest, said his district is working to increase the number of schools with air conditioning.

"A majority of our schools have air conditioning but there are a few that currently do not," said James Montalto, whose district serves Shirley, Mastic, Mastic Beach and Moriches. "In October 2017, the William Floyd community overwhelmingly supported a capital project which includes air conditioning for three of the schools currently without. We are awaiting state approvals to begin the work." 

Though this September is expected to be warmer than usual, forecasters say more moderate temperatures are predicted for Friday and into next week.

Representatives for more than half of Long Island’s 124 public school districts did not report any closures or early dismissals Thursday because of the heat. All middle and high school athletic events in Suffolk County were canceled after a full heat alert was sent out.

 The New York State High School Football Coaches Association noted coaches for all sports are obliged to follow the policies devised by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

Its requirements, according to its website, escalate as the thermometer rises, from providing "ample water and water breaks every 15 minutes," to allowing one hour of recovery time for every hour of practice, to canceling all outdoor sessions when the heat index hits 96. 

Long Islanders who commented on whether schools should have air conditioning on Newsday's website raised various concerns, including whether what is usually a brief late summer heat wave justified the expense and how much the heat impeded learning.

Brian Henke of Islip wrote: "The money could be better spent on programs for the students. There are not enough hot days to justify the cost."

Bill Harrison of Franklin Square agreed: "No, kids have survived the last 80-plus years without it. For the few weeks of heat, it's not worth the cost outlay."

Carolyn Krakowski, who grew up in Mattituck and now teaches in St. Louis, also chimed in: “We all survived the large brick oven schools. Open the windows get a fan you'll be fine.”

But Maritza Simard of Middle Island pointed out that heat can threaten safety in addition to making it harder to learn.

"Absolutely all schools should have air conditioners," she said. "How can anyone focus and concentrate when they're so hot, worrying about sweating and passing out?"


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