Heat Wave Makes for Muggy Schools After Air-Conditioning Is Switched Off

MCPS reports about 70 schools have moved from cooling to heating systems


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Hot, muggy classrooms greeted parents and students this week at a number of county schools that don’t have running air conditioning, despite summer-like temperatures.

While all public schools in Montgomery County have A/C, about 70 have switched over to their heating systems in preparation for crisp October weather.

It became uncomfortable this week when the mercury climbed to 85 degrees.

On Monday, schools across the county held open houses so parents could spend time in the classroom. Many left feeling a bit steamed.

“Kids and teachers are melting!” one person wrote in a Facebook post tagged to school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse.

School board members on Tuesday asked the Montgomery County Public Schools staff to explain the process of converting from cooling to heating systems and what they’ve done to cope with the heat wave.

James Song, the MCPS director of facilities management, said transitioning from A/C to heat is more complicated than flipping a switch at home. Converting each school’s system can take 24 to 48 hours, and teams of mechanical technicians are required to make the switch at the district’s 205 schools. The whole operation lasts about three weeks, Song said.

The process is quicker at schools with newer heating and air conditioning systems, but Song estimated that more than half of the district’s HVAC systems have aged past their average lifespan.

MCPS halted the changeovers when temperatures spiked, and officials are using ventilation systems to draw cool nighttime air into schools that lack air conditioning. However, school board members said they felt sympathy for students in stuffy second-floor classrooms.

“It is really difficult, when you have trouble breathing and you’re sweating, to focus,” board member Rebecca Smondrowski said.

Laura Stewart, whose seventh-grade son attends Sligo Middle School in Silver Spring, said the conditions weren’t unbearable when she visited Monday. Although the school’s air conditioning had been shut off, some classrooms had wall units that helped bring down temperatures.

“But the problem was in the hallways. It was extremely humid,” said Stewart of Silver Spring.

The warm weather isn’t much of a problem for new or renovated schools with upgraded systems, said Stewart, who leads a committee on school capital planning for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. She pointed to a document showing MCPS is $800 million behind in systemic maintenance projects and said much of that total is for needed HVAC replacements.

The school system doesn’t have a set timeframe for converting to heat and monitors the weather to decide when the process should begin. But Song said it’s impossible to predict temperatures weeks in advance.

Andrew Zuckerman, MCPS’s chief operating officer, told school board members that education officials will look at adjusting procedures and timing for the process in future years to avoid sweltering schools.

Song noted that officials can’t wait too long to make the switch or they risk pipes bursting during a freeze.

Bethany Rodgers can be reached at bethany.rodgers@bethesdamagazine.com.

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