Huntington Park fan fire called ‘wakeup call’ to review policy, Orban says
By Richard Leitner, News Staff
The recent fire that closed Huntington Park Elementary School for the final week of classes is prompting a Mountain trustee to call on her colleagues to review how the public board deals with hot-weather days.
Lillian Orban said she’s concerned existing policies to keep kids in school when the heat gets unbearable may have indirectly led to the June 21 blaze, blamed on a fan brought in to cool a classroom. The Ward 7 representative said she plans to raise the issue with a policy subcommittee when trustees resume their meeting schedule in September.
“I think this (recent) particular heat wave is a wakeup call for the board to authorize principals to be able to dismiss kids earlier,” Orban said.
“We didn’t have common sense to look at especially our very young kids, our special-(education) kids and asthmatic kids, in terms of these heat waves and overheating of children.”
She isn’t alone in questioning the board’s practices.
Yolanda Sinha withdrew her “devastated” Grade 4 daughter from a city-wide elementary track meet the board held at the Mohawk Sports Park the same day as the school fire because of a city smog advisory.
The board did modify the event, including by running longer distance races in the morning, but the Dundas parent said she doesn’t understand why organizers wouldn’t heed public warnings to stay inside and not do any strenuous exercise.
She said although the humidex, a measure of heat and humidity, didn’t reach the predicted 43 degrees Celsius that day, it did hit 38, just shy of the 40 that would have cancelled the event.
“I feel if the City of Hamilton is advising not to exercise outside to the general public, why then are the kids then not considered into that?” Sinha said.
“To actually encourage a physically demanding activity, to me, doesn’t make sense,” she said. “When it’s boiling hot, we say, ‘Don’t walk your dog,’ but hey, the kids can run.”
According to data from a Ministry of the Environment monitoring station near Hill Park Secondary School, the Mountain’s air quality fell in the moderate range for most of the day and topped out at 48. Anything over 50 is considered poor.
Board chair Tim Simmons said he attended the track meet during the afternoon, because his eight-year-old son was a participant, and found conditions fine, even though he was wearing a suit.
He said his son ran the last race of the day and still had enough energy to play outside most of that evening.
“One of the things about Mohawk sports complex is that it’s on the east Mountain, so there was a nice breeze from the lake, so you didn’t get the mugginess, you didn’t get the smog so much there, I don’t think,” Simmons said.
“The key is that everybody remains hydrated. You can handle the hot weather, so long as you’ve got the water in your body. I know that everybody who was attending there had to have water and my understanding is there was water available to anyone who needed it.”
Simmons said the same approach is taken at schools, where teachers can also take students to cooler places in the building or to a shady spot outdoors.
He said it’s up to his fellow trustees if they want to review the board’s procedures, but doesn’t see giving principals the authority to let kids out early as practical.
“That might cause other problems with parents picking up their kids in the middle of the day, so I’m not sure that would solve the problem,” Simmons said.
“I think making sure that every child is hydrated properly is the way to go.”
Board spokesperson Jackie Penman said only about a quarter of the total space in schools is air conditioned and there isn’t a policy on hot-weather days.
Older schools try to use air conditioned areas – typically libraries, computer labs and gyms – as much as possible and teachers modify activities to reduce physical exertion, she said.
“Parents always have the right to keep their child out of school if they feel they’d be more comfortable at home,” she said.