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Football in a basketball gym and indoor recess: Dangerous heat scrambles St. Louis schools

A set of large purple doors adorned with a "Parkway North Vikings" decal and a Vikings head logo. Through the windows of the doors, partially obscured through the semi-transparent decal, groups of young men in athletic clothes are in a basketball gym.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
The Parkway North football team practices in the gymnasium on Monday at the high school in unincorporated north St. Louis County. Extreme temperatures have made it dangerous for teams to practice outside, so both of the school’s squads walked through plays and ran drills in the gym.

Updated at 1p.m. Aug. 23 with school building closures

Educators around the St. Louis region are adapting and trying to be flexible in the first week of school as dangerous heat settles in the area.

Already, the National Weather Service has reported heat indexes close to 120 degrees in some parts of the area. Dangerous heat is expected until at least Friday, which has meant changes for many students.

On the first day of school at Nance Elementary early Monday morning, students lined up for breakfast as Prince’s "1999" played in the background. The late pop star was urging the kids to party, but when it came time for recess, they didn’t get to let loose outside.

“We will do indoor recess through the duration of the heat advisories, especially given how hot and also how humid it is outside,” said Principal Tyler Archer.

Many students in line wore clear St. Louis Public Schools backpacks with yellow water bottles slipped into a side pocket. The bottles are part of the district’s strategy to keep students hydrated and healthy. District officials are also asking parents to transport their children to school if they are able, because most school buses do not have air conditioning, both in SLPS and other local districts.

A diptych of two vertical images. In the left image, a White woman's hand holds a wet bulb thermometer, giving a reading of 88 degrees. In the right image, a yellow water bottle sits in the side pocket of a clear backpack, which is hanging from a chair.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
LEFT: Athletic trainer Hannah Harris demonstrates the use of a wet bulb thermometer on Monday at Parkway North High School in unincorporated north St. Louis County. Unlike regular thermometers, wet bulb thermometers can account for humidity, wind and solar radiation. RIGHT: A school-issued water bottle sits in a student’s backpack on Monday at Nance Elementary School in the North Pointe neighborhood.

School staff are also watching kids closely.

“Within our schools, we often have kids with severe asthma and other medical conditions,” Archer said. Precautions include “knowing who those kids are, monitoring to make sure that teachers know [and] bus drivers know how to keep those kids safe, and to know signs of if a child is in distress.”

At least two local schools have had to temporarily close because of the extreme heat. On Monday an SLPS middle school lost power and temporarily shared a building with a high school. In the Metro East, Granite City High School students are learning virtually through the end of the week; the school’s aging air conditioning couldn’t handle the heat. Luckily, the district is expecting to replace its system at the end of September.

“With all the climate changes and the new heat expected, I think we'll be much more prepared for this in the future,” superintendent Stephanie Cann said. “So although this is a temporary setback, I think in the long term, the new system will allow us to not have to do things like this.”

The heat is especially dangerous for student athletes. On Monday afternoon, the door leading into Parkway North High School was fogged with condensation.

Athletic directors and coaches in the school district are maintaining complicated schedules, rotating fall sports teams through shorter practices in air-conditioned gyms.

The Missouri State High School Activities Association has strict rules for practicing during heat. Many are based on the wet bulb globe thermometer.

Hannah Harris, a certified athletic trainer, keeps an eye on that measurement. She works for Mercy Sports Medicine at Parkway North and says the wet bulb globe temperature accounts for multiple factors, including temperature, wind, humidity and cloud coverage.

“It's a little more in-depth than the heat index, and so we get a more accurate reading on how it can affect the body,” Harris said.

School districts are required to have a device to measure the wet bulb globe temperature, so they can get hyper-local readings where kids could be practicing.

To the right and in the foreground, a young Black men with braids and wearing a gray shirt wraps his arms around another young Black man, wearing the same gray shirt, who is smiling and holding a football. To the left, in the background and out of focus are two other young Black men, both also wearing the same gray shirt. Behind all of them are the wooden slats of a set of basketball stands.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Freshman linebacker Christian Washington, right, grabs sophomore quarterback Caleb Foster as they stand on the sidelines of a drill on Monday at Parkway North High School in north county.

Harris demonstrated the device on Parkway North’s tennis courts.

“So right now, we are hovering around 88 for the wet bulb globe temperature. And that falls within our orange range.”

The state activities organization has a color scale for how dangerous the heat is. At 2 p.m., when outdoor practice was supposed to start, the reading was in MSHAA’s black zone — which meant absolutely no outdoor practices would have been allowed. A few hours later, students could practice outside, but there would be heavy restrictions, including rest breaks.

“In that situation, most coaches know that the quality of practice is not going to be the best,” Harris said.

The rules are even stricter for football — because players are basically bundled up in protective gear. Inside, the varsity football team is practicing on a basketball court. The athletes run through formations, but there’s none of the usual sounds of tackles, and they aren’t wearing their normal pads and helmets.

“Football inside is never ideal,” said coach Karl Odenwald.

Two young men, partially obscured by poles and seen in silhouette walk through a hallway. The whole scene is covered by fog on the camera's glass.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Parkway North football players, pictured through a layer of fog that accumulated on the camera’s lens due to high heat and humidity, walk down a hallway on Monday at the school in unincorporated north St. Louis County.

Obviously safety has to be the top priority, he said, but the team has its first game on Friday and so needs to get some practice in.

“It's hard to work on throwing the ball as much as you would like,” Odenwald said. “So we spend a lot of time offensively working on our run game, defensively defending the opposing team’s run game. So you just do what you can with what you have.”

At least the competition is in the same predicament. The state’s heat rules apply to everyone equally.

The forecast for the rest of the week isn’t looking great, but Odenwald hopes the team will be able to get outside at least once before Friday’s game.

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.