Laura Seitz, Deseret News
MAGNA — Water bottles were perched on the desk of nearly every student Wednesday at Cyprus High School, and teachers spoke over the buzz of portable air conditioning units.
In the hallway, students stopped intermittently to cool off in front of large fans placed to help air flow through the building.
Record August heat is providing a familiar but unwelcome challenge for several school districts as students and teachers returning to class try to keep cool.
Granite School District has been installing air conditioning systems at all of its schools and will complete the project on budget and ahead of schedule in November, district spokesman Ben Horsley said.
But for 11 remaining schools, including Cyprus, Utah's desert heat will be calling the shots for the next few weeks.
"People are getting antsy about getting their air conditioning," Horsley said. "We are asking people to be patient."
The issue has been exacerbated at Cyprus, where a malfunction with the dampers — vents that allow cool night air to flow through the building after hours — has filled classrooms with stifled air and temperatures in the mid- to upper 80s.
In addition to the hallway fans, bottled water has been delivered daily and contractors working on the air conditioning installation have been asked to address the problem with the dampers. But there's only so much that can be done when temperatures outside are nearly 100 degrees.
Cyprus junior Marin Easton said the heat has made it difficult to concentrate in class. But that's pretty typical in the first week of the school year, she said.
"It feels the same," Easton said. "Really hot."
Cyprus Principal Steve Hess said the heat is a detriment to learning, and school officials are try to mitigate that as much as possible.
"The heat affects you," Hess said.
Adding air conditioning to a single school costs an average of $1 million, Horsley said. The funds for the Granite District project were secured through a bond election in 2009.
Other school districts in the state also have installed air conditioning systems in recent years, but many of Utah's students — Horsley estimated 60 percent — are still subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
In Canyons School District, the three schools without air conditioning are scheduled to have installation completed in September. Salt Lake City School District began pushing for air conditioning in 1999 and completed installation at all schools last year. In Provo School District, installation at all schools was completed in the past five years.
All of Davis School District's year-round elementary schools are air conditioned, district spokesman Christopher Williams said. Thirty of the district's 81 other schools are not air conditioned, but classes don't begin until after Labor Day, a decision Williams said is based on Common Core training and not on the heat.
But for district calendaring committees, summer heat often is a factor in setting the first day of school.
"It's always something that comes up," said Nate Taggert, spokesman for Weber School District, where roughly half of all schools are air conditioned. "It's something that is looked at when the schedule is made."
Horsley said adjusting Granite's school calendar to avoid summer heat is a perennial discussion. But starting the school year the last week of August tends to be preferable to losing breaks during the year or extending classes into June.
"Oftentimes, a two-week break over Christmas wins out," he said.
On the spring side of the calendar, extending the school year to avoid August and September heat can cause scheduling issues with graduation venues and curriculum problems with AP testing, which typically occurs in May.
A late-starting summer also can put high school students looking for summer work at a disadvantage and can run up against summer college semesters for graduating seniors looking to get a head start on higher education.
"June is usually the month everybody is out looking for jobs," Principal Hess said.
In addition to comfort, a benefit of air conditioning in schools is the flexibility it brings to the calendar, from determining the start and end dates of the school year to offering the facilities for community events during the summer, Horsley said.
"The school is intended to be a community hub," he said. "They're really hot in the summer, so they don't get used."
Granite School District policy requires school officials to record daily classroom temperatures after May 1 and before Sept. 15 and engage in a mitigation plan in cases of excessive heat.
Cyprus has been operating at a "caution level," which dictates that school officials encourage students to wear lightweight clothing and take frequent water breaks.
If temperatures increase to an "extreme caution level" of 90 to 99 degrees or a "danger level" of 100 degrees or hotter, additional actions are required — including the possible dismissal of classes.
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