Montgomery County’s public school system is explaining its lengthy process each spring for turning on air conditioning in school buildings, after one unseasonably hot day this month sent five middle school students to the hospital.
County officials say it isn’t as simple as flipping a switch to get air conditioning in the county’s older public buildings, but soon it will be when these systems are being upgraded as they come up for replacement. New buildings are only being constructed with newer systems.
Every spring and fall, it takes school system staff and county contractors a few weeks to switch over the systems that still run on two-pipe heating, ventilation and air conditioning, which require someone to manually detach a boiler and set up a cooling system.
In the past five to 10 years, the school system and county have begun upgrading their systems to those that automatically adjust themselves and can switch back and forth between heating and cooling, said Richard Jackson, the county’s division chief of facilities management.
Staff had not yet begun making the switch the week of April 7, so air conditioning was not available when a heat wave came through the area that caused record-high temperatures of more than 90 degrees.
The temperature April 10 in Rockville was about 94 degrees in the late afternoon when Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service responded to a call from Colonel Zadok A. Magruder High School, where middle school students were participating in a choral festival in the school’s auditorium, Assistant Fire Chief Scott Graham said.
Five students were transported to a hospital due to heat exhaustion or dehydration, Graham said.
The students’ conditions were not serious, Graham said.
Students from several middle schools were participating in the event, which was canceled after the five students went to the hospital, Tofig said.
Tofig is not sure what happened that day, as there were adults supervising, and he said schools know that on unseasonably hot days they should have fans in place and water available for students.
He said he is not sure if fans were being used in Magruder’s auditorium.
Montgomery County Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski (Dist. 2) of Gaithersburg said she would prefer all schools have upgraded systems, to ensure the health and safety of those in the buildings.
School system HVAC systems are replaced and maintained in a cycle, depending on their useful life, using money in the school system’s capital budget.
Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr made a request to County Executive Isiah Leggett this year to accelerate the maintenance and replacement of the school system’s HVAC systems, which is currently backlogged.
Leggett denied the requested additional $11.5 million for the systems, citing fiscal restraints.
Until the systems are replaced, Smondrowski said, individual principals should have the authority to close their school if it is too hot in their buildings on certain days.
Program staff at busy county buildings, such as public libraries, have the authority to make a call on whether to keep buildings open during these days, Jackson said.
It is not rare for older public libraries, such as the one in Chevy Chase, to decide to close their doors for those days, he said.
Susan Burkinshaw, the health and safety co-chair for the county’s main parent group, said principals’ focus should be on keeping everyone hydrated, unless the temperature reaches a high that is unsafe for everyone.
It’s important that schools are “on top of their game,” Smondrowski said, so there are not too many incidents.
She said her children came home from school complaining about the heat in their schools that week, saying, but maybe exaggerating, that it was “like 100 degrees,” in their classrooms.
One those days, her children complain it is hard to focus on anything but how hot it is, she said.
Days such as that are unpredictable, Tofig said. The county had not yet switched its systems the week of the Magruder event. Less than a week before, April 4, it was below freezing when kids got to school in the morning, and the high temperature only reached 52 degrees, according to the weather almanac on wunderground.com.
Jackson said it is a guessing game for when the county should start to switch over its buildings. Out of 270 county buildings, 100 to 125 must be switched manually.
Normally, the county makes the switch from heating to cooling May 1 and from cooling to heating Oct. 1, he said.
Jackson said although upgraded systems are more expensive, they are well worth the cost, as they cost less to run and maintain.
Starr has said many schools’ HVAC systems are being used well beyond their expected life.
“We cannot continue to make repairs to systems that are long overdue for replacement,” he wrote in his request.