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Heat Impacts SD Students

Hot summer weather is taking its toll on most people in South Dakota, but it’s especially true for students. From preschoolers to college students, the high temperatures and thick humidity are prompting administrators to examine how best to keep kids healthy and hydrated.

Droplets of water catch the early evening sun’s rays as sprinklers launch them into the air. The beads cling to blades of grass and slide into the soil. Some drops shatter on the pavement. It’s a charming scene suddenly interrupted by baritones.

It's the Sioux Falls Roosevelt marching band at Howard Wood Field. Members are split off into groups to practice their own elements of a routine. Despite rising temperatures and stifling humidity, these musicians march on. 

"Kids bring those big thermos coolers full of water, and they go through those at least once during practice time," band parent Christen Rennich says.

Rennich is right. Band members of all sizes lug and chug from gallon-sized water bottles. The Roosevelt parent’s daughter, Rachel Dickerson, reminds her mom that band is a sport or, at least, as intense as one. Rennich says band members do conditioning like running, and their programs put them on the field for huge stretches of time.

"They’re very cautious. They wear hats. They wear sunscreen. They take a lot of water breaks, because it is very strenuous," Rennich says. "They’re not only practicing the show and their drills and their marching spots, but they’re also playing music, so it can take a lot out of them."

Rennich says she’s confident in the directors and staff members who make sure the students are well-hydrated and don’t get overwhelmed. She says it’s also up to the kids to know their own breaking points in the sweltering sun. Some schools called off activities because of the wicked temperatures. Others canceled class altogether.

It may not be summer break, but it’s certainly a break for summer weather. More than two dozen South Dakota school districts shut down for at least part of the day to get kids out of the muggy classrooms by early afternoon. Many are sparsely-populated, but even Rapid City schools dismissed students at 1 p.m. Tuesday. Superintendent Tim Mitchell says that’s the plan Wednesday, too.

"And each year we’ve added more buildings to our inventory that have heating, cooling and air conditioning units that are very high efficient and do create a very safe and conducive learning environment in outside weather conditions," Mitchell says. "But we as a big school do have a lot of buildings in our inventory. Some of them are older buildings, our older brick school buildings, and they are not totally designed for this kind of heat."

Mitchell says those buildings rely on open windows to ease the oppressive warmth. And air flow just can’t keep classrooms cool enough for students to be  focused and safe.

Making it through K-12 and into college doesn’t change that fact. Leaders in higher ed are working to keep their students from roasting on campus. The University of Sioux Falls doesn’t welcome all students until next week, but more than 125 student athletes are on campus. USF has six dorms, and three of those are not air conditioned.

"Even if it is 90-something degrees during the day, it cools off enough at night where there’s relief and the students feel comfortable in their bedroom and can get a good night’s rest and don’t feel like they’re just sitting in their own sweat sometimes," Student Services and Residence Life director Alex Heinert says. "But last night it was about 10:45 and I was over in one of our freshman dormitories, and it really was just sitting there, you would persperate. It was ridiculous."

Heinert says campus leaders are training residence assistants and directors who live in the dorms.

"So that’s great contact to kind of ask, ‘How are things? Is it really unbearable? Are you having a tough time sleeping?’ And then what’s the mindset of the girls or the guys that you’re living with, that are living down the hall? Are they doing okay? Are they complaining a lot? Are they having a tough time going to bed? Are they sleeping in the lounge because it’s cooler out there?" Heinert says.

Heinert says he gets mixed responses to those questions, and U-S-F administrators are monitoring the situation in case they need to move students to cooler rooms.

Other colleges are coping with the issue on a greater scale. South Dakota State University in Brookings kept the student union open overnight so the 1,200 students without air conditioning had an option to escape the sweat and sleep.

Still, the relief that comes in the form of crisp air conditioning for college students doesn’t apply at band practice. But, as only high schoolers can show you, there are other ways to beat the heat. Roosevelt marching band students turn to the sprinklers. They say the water felt good in the heat; one student calls them the sprinklers of youth. The students find sprinting through the mist makes for a cooler run-through at band practice.  

Some K-12 school districts are letting out class early through the end of the week. That’s because the forecast doesn’t offer much relief from the hot weather until this weekend. South Dakota State Climatologist Dennis Todey says the Great Plains have seen a late season shift.

"What has happened throughout much of the summer is that ridge of high pressure, that’s why they’re having as bad of a fire season as they’re having right now," Todey says. "It made them very dry, but it allowed cooler air out of Canada to be over us and also drier conditions for much of the season."

Todey says some lower temperatures this weekend can offer some relief, but the mercury is likely to rise again next week.