After a tumultuous school year that included months of distance learning, St. Paul Public Schools students learned at the end of a sweltering Tuesday that it would be their last day of school. One seventh grade teacher sent a photo of this cake to her students and families. She had planned to bring it to school Wednesday; alas, her seventh graders who survived the year will not have the opportunity to eat it. Credit: Ann Hebble | St. Paul Public Schools

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St. Paul Public Schools announced an abrupt end to the school year Tuesday, canceling classes for all 32,000 students for the remainder of the week—and the school year.

“We are very sorry to have to end the school year in this way,” read a district message to students and families. “We know how much students and staff look forward to this time of year. This is not how any of us wanted this school year to end. We know our families and staff have been through so much and appreciate all of your support this year.”

The announcement came after days of sweltering heat, and after Minneapolis Public Schools switched 15 schools without air conditioning to distance learning for Tuesday through Thursday.

In north Minneapolis’ Olson Middle School, temperatures in some classrooms reached 97 degrees by 9 a.m. Monday. Teachers moved classes on the third floor to the first-floor cafeteria, where it was cooler—but just by a few degrees. Because only about half the school’s 400 students are learning in person, they had more room to spread out. Students lined up along the lockers in the hallway by the main office to catch a breeze from a large fan. 

“There isn’t a lot of actual teaching going on because teachers are prioritizing student safety, their own safety,” said Laura Henry, a teacher on special assignment–that is, an experienced teacher who provides support to other educators–at Olson Middle School. “We’ve been trying to survive.”

Because of COVID restrictions, students and teachers couldn’t drink directly from water fountains. They could refill water bottles. But most students didn’t have bottles to refill. Teachers spent their own money on cups, water bottles, and freezie pops, Henry said. And masks just made everyone more uncomfortable.

By Monday afternoon, the school district announced it would be sending 15 schools, including Olson, into distance learning from Tuesday through Thursday. The weather forecast shows temperatures reaching into the 90s each of the next three days after a hot weekend. About 6,500 students attend the 15 schools either in-person or through distance learning. 

At Lake Harriet Upper School, classroom temperatures reached 93 degrees by 7:35 a.m. Monday, according to a photo of a thermometer provided by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Greta Callahan, the president of the union’s teacher chapter, said that some classrooms have reached over 100 degrees.

The temperature in one Lake Harriet Upper school classroom at 7:35 a.m. on Monday. Credit: Courtesy Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

Learning first-hand about climate change

This week marks the first time St. Paul Public Schools have closed due to heat, and the second time in modern memory that high temperatures have shuttered some buildings in Minneapolis Public Schools. During the first week of school in August 2013, a heat wave drove Minneapolis to cancel classes in 27 schools. 

Some schools affected by the heat closure serve predominantly students of color, including Olson Middle School. But overall, the schools shifting to distance learning this week have a whiter student population than the district average. Since 2017, the district has installed air conditioning in six Minneapolis schools, five of which serve primarily students of color. 

Olson Middle School—along with Bryn Mawr Elementary School and Windom Dual Spanish Immersion School—typically have air conditioning. But now, during the hottest days of the school year, those three schools are in the midst of a chiller replacement project—meaning they can’t cool their buildings on the hottest days of the school year.

In St. Paul Public Schools, about one third of the buildings are air conditioned, said Kevin Burns, the district’s communications director.

Air conditioning may not always have been a necessity in Minnesota schools. But temperatures are rising, both in the Twin Cities and around the globe. Since 1970, Minneapolis meteorological summers–which start June 1–have warmed by an average of 2.5 degrees, according to a Climate Central analysis of data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Spring and fall have warmed, too. (Winter temperatures have increased the most, but Minnesotans still don’t need air conditioning in winter.)

Minnesota summer temperatures have increased 2.5 degrees in the last 50 years. Credit: Climate Central

This latest heat wave has come earlier than usual. Minnesota Public Radio meteorologist Paul Huttner noted that Minnesota’s current streak of days over 90 degrees before June 15 could tie a record—set in 2018, just three years ago.

Now that students and teachers can easily transition to distance learning, closing school buildings for heat is less disruptive to their learning, Henry said. And most families and staff were supportive of the shift, she said. Still, students who hoped to spend the last week of school with their friends, after spending much of the year in distance learning, may be disappointed.

Instead of switching to distance learning, St. Paul Public Schools opted to cancel class altogether for the remaining three days of the school year. The abrupt end to the school year means many students won’t get to participate in celebratory end-of-school activities.

In Minneapolis, school buildings are currently scheduled to reopen Friday, the last day of class. Olson Middle School plans to hold a promotion ceremony for the eighth graders leaving for high school. Teachers will be able to take care of last-day-of-school needs in person; students will clean out their lockers.

The current forecast shows a Friday high of 91 degrees.

This is a developing story. It has been updated with additional reporting.

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.