College calls off language classes during heat wave

MIDDLEBURY — Bits of Russian, French, and other languages could be heard in downtown Middlebury and at local swimming holes on Thursday afternoon rather than on the Middlebury College campus, as students in the college Language Schools were freed from their classrooms and air conditioned-less rooms and allowed to frolic in cooler spaces.
On Thursday, Vice President of the Language Schools Michael Geisler cancelled all classes for both undergraduate and graduate students participating in the summer language programs due to the sustained heat wave that hovered over Vermont last week. After receiving complaints from students and faculty, Geisler spoke with President Ron Liebowitz and made the decision Wednesday evening to call off classes the following day.
“We’ve had the most sustained and exceptional heat wave in certainly the memory of anybody around here,” Geisler said.
He explained that it was not just the extreme temperatures that brought about the cancellation, but rather, that the heat had lasted for so many days in a row.
“We’ve had days where it’s been this hot,” Geisler said, “but then it would break, and we’ve had periods of heat before where temperatures would climb into the 90s, but what, five days now? With 90- and 100-and-some-degree temperatures? To the best of our knowledge we haven’t had an uninterrupted period like that. We would sometimes go down again and come up again, and you can take that because you have a day to recuperate before the next wave.”
Though it will cause a slight blip in the curriculum, Geisler reasoned that a day to recuperate was worth whatever rearranging of schedules would need to take place.
“There’s nothing I could do about an unprecedented heat wave in Vermont,” he said, “But, I thought that if I could reduce the anxiety level from an intense program, knowing also that cooler days were coming up, it made more sense to put in a day of rest, give people a chance to rest up, get to sleep without having to worry about the homework they need to do for the next day, go to the library, we made sure to remind everyone to stay in language no matter what they do.”
Many of the schools decided to escape the stagnant heat on campus and retreat to local water holes. The French School ventured to Bartlett Falls in the New Haven River in Bristol, and the Russian School moved their Lake Dunmore picnic from its original Saturday date up to Thursday afternoon.
“This way everyone who wanted to had the chance to jump in Lake Dunmore and cool off,” said Russian School Director Jason Merrill.
Merrill taught at the Language Schools for five years before taking on the role of director this year, and he, like Geisler, could not recall classes ever having been called off for heat before now.
“As far as I know this is completely unprecedented,” he said on Thursday. “I mean, I remember being here years ago and dripping in sweat in the classrooms. It’s the sustained heat that’s getting people, and the fact that it started Monday has made it worse. It’s coincided with the start of the week, which has been rough on the students. Their sleeping is off, their eating is off — mostly this break has given people a chance not necessarily to just cool off, but to catch up.”
Though some students were frustrated that classes were put off, others appreciated the escape from their over-heated rooms. Joanna Rothkopf, an undergraduate student in the French School, described what they are calling the “canicule,” or heat wave (like all Language School students she has signed a contract committing to speak only the language she is learning while at the school).
“The weather has been awful!” said Rothkopf (translated from French). “Coffrin (residence hall) feels like an oven — it lets heat in but not out! I keep a large box fan in my room and even with the power on high it’s still pretty bad. A lot of my classes don’t have real air conditioning so this day off has been really helpful.”
Rothkopf, along with the other students in the French School, found out about the cancellation late Wednesday evening.
“I heard classes for the Russian and Spanish schools were canceled last night at about 9 when I was doing homework in the library,” she said. “There was then a mad rush with every French student trying to figure out if we would have to attend ours tomorrow. We didn’t receive final word until about 10:30 at which point everyone flooded the juice bar filled with vertige (giddiness) and confusion.”
Though all of the classrooms used for language classes are either air-conditioned or “naturally cool spaces,” it was a lack of air-conditioning within the students’ dorm rooms that led to many of the original complaints of not being able to sleep, etc.
The lack of air-conditioning has also caused problems for other offices on campus. In order for staff to be kept safe, the college has a “Thermal Comfort” policy.
“The college does have a policy for addressing extreme heat,” said Provost Alison Byerly. “We need to support essential operations, but also want to create some flexibility for staff who may be working in uncomfortable situations. I sent a message to the campus yesterday, noting that supervisors could consider letting staff work more flexible hours, move to air conditioned spaces to perform tasks that were relocatable, or leave work early.”
According to Byerly, the college’s facilities department has used several of the options suggested in the policy, including earlier start times, limiting non-essential tasks that were especially physically demanding, and re-ordering work to tackle strenuous work early in the day. Some staff also took laptops to work in the library or other air conditioned spaces.
“I think everyone has been remarkably tolerant and good-humored about the situation,” noted Byerly.
Along with offering trips to water holes, language school administrators advised students to just take it easy.
“We have just been recommending that they go study in air-conditioned spaces, and to drink a lot of water. Go to the library, to Bicentennial Hall — stay cool, don’t move around that much, and drink a lot,” Merrill said. “We usually tell them to exercise, too, but I think that’s been suspended — unless it’s swimming.”
Reporter Tamara Hilmes is at [email protected].

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