Heat hits hard during first weeks of schools

MICHAEL KELLY The Marietta Times Children in Charlie Laswell's fifth grade class at Phillips Elementary School study math while a portable cooling unit works to keep the temperature down in the classroom on Thursday. The first few weeks of school in Marietta are a battle with high temperatures in the old building, which do not have central air conditioning.

Among the many challenges of the first few weeks in school in Washington County, the weather is one that is nearly inescapable.

This week, temperatures so far have peaked nearly every day in the low 90s, and cheating the heat in Marietta City Schools, a district with vintage buildings and no central air conditioning, is near the level of an art.

Darrell Prim, transportation and facilities manager for the district, said a number of strategies are in use to keep classrooms in the old buildings, if not cool at least bearable.

The district, he said, has several portable cooling units it deploys here and there as needed. Custodians, he said, often arrive early at the buildings and try to flush out stale and heated air that accumulates overnight.

Phillips Elementary School is probably the most vulnerable building in the district to late summer heat, with the building facing southwest into the afternoon sun. On Thursday afternoon, Charlie Laswell’s fifth grade class was puzzling out some math displayed on a projector as a fan buzzed by the teacher’s desk and a portable cooling unit pumped heat out an open third-floor window. The lights were dimmed and the windows shaded.

It was 84 degrees in the room.

“On a day like Monday or Tuesday, it was 90 in here,” Laswell said.

One floor down, in Katie Costaras’ second grade class, a fan was moving air around the darkened room as children worked at tables.

“We have kids who complain of headaches from the heat,” she said, gesturing at a couple who had their heads down on the table.

“Teachers will turn off the lights whenever possible, we have fans in the classrooms, but the only issue from that is that it can be difficult to hear over the noise,” principal Kristi Lantz said. “Parents send in popsicles, cold treats and bottles of water. We limit extensive strenuous activity in afternoon.”

She said the school is especially attentive to children with medical needs, such as those who have asthma, but it’s not feasible to have air conditioning in every room – like other Marietta schools, the building’s electrical system can’t handle the load.

“If we could get these kids into a cooler environment, that would be ideal, but still, the students and teachers have adapted to the heat and are performing well,” she said.

Prim said the portable units are 12,000 btu coolers that plug into 120V outlets.

“They take the temperature down a few degrees, make it more tolerable,” he said. “Anything larger than what we’ve got, you’re looking at running conduit for 220-volt electric. The panel boxes are full, and it’s just hard to find that extra capacity.”

Prim said the district is doing what it can until the weather cools off.

“In August, there’s just not a whole lot you can do,” he said. “I’ve got grandkids in the district, they come home all hot and sweaty and say, ‘Grandpa, why can’t you do something?’ We used to be able to open the doors in the gym, but the way society is now, you can’t do that. We have barrel fans in the gyms, and some days the kids just go outside for physical education.”

Harmar Elementary School principal Cheryl Cook said her school uses many of the same work-arounds to keep classrooms cool, with the custodian arriving early to take advantage of one of her building’s assets.

“The custodian opens the windows early, and we have this big attic fan that helps pull out the hot air,” she said. “We’ve got an enormous attic fan in the gym. When it’s running you really have to put some muscle into it to open the outside doors.”

Cook said the staff replaced several portable fans this year, and the building has two dehumidifiers in the basement. She said the staff is careful students have water to stay hydrated.

“Every little bit helps,” she said.

Meanwhile, the district looks ahead to fall.

“I can’t wait until late September and October, when we get those cooler nights,” Prim said.

Daytime high temperatures this week in Marietta:

•Monday: 91.

•Tuesday: 92.

•Wednesday: 90.