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Heat wave closes schools

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The first day back at school was a short one for most students in Kahnawake this week, with students at all three Kahnawake Education Center (KEC) schools dismissed by 12 p.m. on Tuesday due to scorching temperatures. Schools remained closed for a second day on Wednesday for the safety of students, with regular classes resuming yesterday for all students.

“I was kind of bummed out, because it was the first day of school, so it was hard to get them up, it was a whole production to get ready,” said TammyJo Lahache, who has two children at Kateri School and one child at Howard S. Billings High School, which did not close for the heat. “I knew in my heart, honestly, that I wanted to keep them home, but I also didn’t want them to miss out on the first week of school.”

KEC made announcements over email and Facebook on Tuesday morning, after children had arrived at school, that nursery and kindergarten classes would be dismissed at 11:30 a.m., with grades one to 11 being dismissed at noon.

“We’ve been getting more and more heat days,” said KEC operations manager Jason Calvert, who explained that KEC has been working on installing air conditioning in the schools for some time. “I’ve been working here for 20 years this fall, and I’m seeing the temperatures getting higher and higher and higher. We didn’t see the heat that we’re seeing now, this is the second year in a row that we’ve had a big heatwave in September.”

Karonhianónhnha Tsi Ionterihwaienstáhkhwa had six air conditioning units installed in its hottest classrooms last year, and Calvert explained that the team is in the process of installing a further 10 mini split units, which will ultimately provide air conditioning to the entirety of the school. He said that the units are similar to residential air conditioning units. 

“The nature of the building (at Karonhianónhnha) and its ventilation system is not as sophisticated as at Kateri School,” Calvert said, explaining why mini split units were chosen for there. “It makes it easier to get it done, but the biggest problem we had there was getting equipment.”

The team had been hoping to install those units by August of this year at Karonhianónhnha, but manufacturing delays meant the units were not available in time. Instead, they will be installed by the end of October, and should be functioning by next spring.

“That makes me really happy. I’m happy not just for the kids, but for the teachers, because I don’t know how they can do that in the heat,” said Lahache of the news that the schools would be getting air conditioning. “Even when it’s not 40 degrees out, it’s still disgustingly hot in the schools. Certain classes in Kateri are so hot, I can’t even go in there.”

The air conditioning at Kateri will also be ready for next spring, but will require a little more engineering work due to the ventilation systems within the building.

“We’ll get the machinery on-site by November or December (at Kateri), but come the Spring, the entire school will definitely have air conditioning,” Calvert confirmed.

Calvert added that the situation is less concerning at Kahnawake Survival School (KSS) given the way the building was constructed. 

“KSS has a lot of rooms that have air conditioning, and the ones that don’t, the way the school was designed means there’s convection cooling,” he said, adding that the majority of the classrooms also face north towards the woods for additional cooling. “It was taken into account when they designed the school, so for the most part, the temperature issue at Survival is not as bad as at the elementary.”

It’s not the first time this year that children in the community have missed school due to extreme weather, after winter storms forced early closures. Marina Gosselin, who works as an environmental projects coordinator at the Kahnawake Environment Protection Office (KEPO) said we can expect more of this kind of weather.

“The temperatures have been increasing steadily, the average is increasing, so that means that there will be impacts with increasing heat waves later,” Gosselin said. “If we look at climate models and projections that they come up with, a lot of them indicate that there will be an increase in the frequency and severity of storms and other events that we typically would have seen once every 100 years. Now we’re going to see them more frequently, so that’s part of the problem that we’ll have to deal with.”

Though schools were back open yesterday, some had reservations about children going into buildings without air conditioning, especially with temperatures continuing to climb to 30 degrees.

“Thirty degrees is too much for our body,” said Linda Whitebean, who has grandchildren at KSS and Kateri. “When my kids were younger, I would assume the schools would stay closed for this kind of weather, but I don’t remember it being this high. There’s a big difference from back when my kids went to school.”

Whitebean is also happy that the schools will be air conditioned from next year, but felt that the units should have been installed sooner. 

“Honestly, I think it should have been in a long time ago, summer’s summer. People like to be cool and relaxed and comfortable, and I think it’s more focused for the kids if they’re comfortable and not overheating,” she said. “We do get warm weather, not as hot as what it’s been, but that should’ve been in there no matter what already.”

She also added that weather forecasting thunderstorms in the coming days could also affect the schools, emphasizing the need for more planning around weather going forward.

“It’s a half-day off, a full day off, then the thunderstorms, so maybe it’ll be our power next, you know?” she said. “I feel for everyone, really, but they should have something in place for a plan. It’s just common sense to have air in the schools, I would think.”

Parents can stay up to date with school closures by checking the KEC Facebook, as well as checking their inboxes for emails from school administration.

This article was originally published in print on Friday, September 8, in issue 32.36 of The Eastern Door.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.