By Catharin Shepard
Crews are working overtime to get new chillers installed at Rockfish Hoke and Sandy Grove elementary schools, where students and teachers without air conditioning are sweltering in the late spring heat.
Parents of some students at the two schools say the soaring temperatures inside the buildings have made their children sick, though school officials say they haven’t received any confirmed reports of heat-related illnesses.
Contracting teams are pulling 10-hour days and will be working over the holiday weekend to install new chillers at Sandy Grove and Rockfish Hoke. If all goes according to plan, Sandy Grove Elementary will have its air conditioning working by Tuesday when students return from Memorial Day, and Rockfish Hoke Elementary will have air conditioning back a few days later, according to Hoke County Schools spokesperson Jodie Bryant.
To help deal with the rising temperatures, teachers have been opening windows and using window fans. Parents have donated bottled water, and several have donated additional fans for classrooms.
Parts of both schools do have working air conditioning. The older parts of the schools are the areas without air conditioning.
Administrators are trying to rotate students around into the air-conditioned parts of the schools to help them cool down for at least part of the day. Some classes have doubled up in the cooler parts of the building, Bryant said.
But some parents say it’s not enough, and their children have gotten sick from the heat.
Shelly McCoy’s daughter, who attends Sandy Grove Elementary, came home sweating heavily, gagging and nauseous from the heat, she said. She has kept her daughter at home since last Tuesday due to her worries about the conditions inside the school.
“If that means she’s out for the rest of the year, she’s out for the rest of the year,” she said. A family friend who is a retired teacher has been tutoring the girl every day at home, keeping up with her assignments, McCoy said.
The school system sent out a letter to parents letting them know that there was a problem with the air conditioning and the schools would be getting upgrades to the equipment. At first McCoy thought it was no big deal, but became concerned when a parents’ meeting was canceled and a sign on the door reported that it was canceled “due to inclement weather,” she said. The school building was still open, and a thermometer inside a classroom registered 101 degrees at 5 p.m. that day, McCoy said.
The teachers “have been wonderful” in trying to deal with the heat, but some school officials have been giving “sound byte answers,” McCoy said. Some parents brought the issue to the Hoke County Board of Education’s attention, but she felt like their concerns weren’t heard.
“I’m very, very unhappy with how the school board handles parents, period,” McCoy said.
The family is looking at buying a house in Cumberland County just to get their child out of Hoke schools, she added.
Kimberly Chavis said her daughter, a pre-kindergarten student at Sandy Grove Elementary, had to come home from school one day because she felt sick.
“They called me today saying she was real hot and she wanted me to come get her,” Chavis said Tuesday.
Chavis first noticed the higher than usual temperatures inside the school when she attended field day.
“It was so hot in there and I asked the teacher what’s going on, why isn’t it cool in here?” she said.
Her middle child, who also attends the school, hasn’t had any problems, but her second-grade son felt sick in the cafeteria since the weather starting warming up, Chavis said.
Sara Strange said her son, a first grade student at Rockfish Hoke Elementary, has also suffered from the heat.
“My son has been getting headaches and throwing up in class,” she said. “He walks out of school at the end of the day with sweat pouring off his face and he’s all red.”
Strange donated a box fan to go with the other four or five in her son’s classroom, but “it’s hot air being blown around, it’s not doing much,” she said.
Even in the morning at the start of the school day, it’s already hot, and her son told her that other students have been sick after eating lunch and going back to class.
Strange said she’s frustrated with the school system’s response.
“It’s to the point, you try to do everything you can and nothing is getting accomplished,” she said. “…Honestly, I don’t think there’s enough concern.”
Officials have received multiple parent complaints about conditions at the schools, Bryant said. Parents have also been helping out by donating fans and bottled water for the kids, she added.
“Parents have been awesome. They’ve brought in extra fans, they’ve brought in water,” she said.
The problem and the solution
The school system has known about the problem for several years and worked to maintain the aging chillers. School officials started talking last year about financially feasible ways to replace the old chillers.
“We knew there were multiple chillers that needed to be replaced,” Bryant said.
Each chiller costs about $600,000 and four schools needed new chillers, she said. Besides Sandy Grove Elementary and Rockfish Hoke Elementary, both West Hoke and East Hoke middle schools have chillers that are nearing the end of their life expectancy.
The total price tag on buying four new chillers comes out to $2.4 million. The Hoke County Board of Commissioners gave the school system about $440,000 for capital outlay projects for the 2014-15 school year, less than half of the $1.2 million the school system requested.
Relying only on local funding, the school system would have been able to afford replacing one chiller a year, meaning it would have taken as long as five years to get them all upgraded, Bryant said.
That’s when school officials turned to energy performance contracting as a way to replace all of the chillers at the same time, and get other work done at all of the county schools. The chillers were ordered in February but take about three months to manufacture. Each one had to be custom-made.
The school system knew that would put delivery of the chillers in the middle of May, when the weather had already started to get warmer. Officials looked into a temporary solution, but it fell through, Bryant said.
“Once we knew it was going to take 12 weeks to build them, they looked into leasing a chiller, but the problem was that would have to be custom built also,” she said.
Cutting install time in half
The new chillers are at the schools, according to Mike Vrchota of Brady Services. Vrchota is serving as senior project manager and will be overseeing the chiller replacement along with all of the other energy performance contracting work for Hoke County Schools.
“We set on the ground on its pad the chiller for Sandy Grove today, and we’re working as fast as we possibly can to get that up and running before the end-of-grade tests come up,” he said. “Tomorrow we take the Rockfish chiller that’s there off its pad and install it (the new chiller) at 1 p.m. tomorrow (Tuesday).”
Working with the chillers is not like working with a simple air conditioning unit, Vrchota said. The machines weigh 20,000 pounds and have to be lifted by crane. First, the crews had to remove the old chiller, and then move the new one into place.
The situation is more complicated at Rockfish Hoke Elementary, because workers discovered that the old piping needed to operate the chiller was worn out and must be replaced. The pipes run underground, so the crews are digging out the old pipes and run 60 feet of new pipe from the chiller to the school’s boiler room, Vrchota reported.
Usually, the full installation process takes two-and-a-half weeks. The contractors are trying to get it done in nine days or less.
While the workers are going as fast as they can to get the air conditioning up and running, it’s a big system and they can’t afford to make a mistake on the installation, the project manager said.
“We still need to be accurate so, once we fire these things up, we don’t blow them up because of an error of somebody missing something. It’s step by step,” he said.
The contractors know some of the students and teachers don’t have air conditioning and have expedited as much of the process as they can, Vrchota said.
“It’s a significant challenge. We’re trying to cut that time in half to get these kids and teachers conditioned air that they haven’t had for a while,” he said. “Definitely, the time clock is ticking and we’re trying to get it done as fast as we can.”
It’s a local matter
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction doesn’t oversee problems with air conditioners or other facilities issues in local school systems, according to Terry Williams, deputy CSO of DPI operations. The state also doesn’t have any guidelines for what kind of temperature range the school systems have to provide. It’s all left up to each school system, he said.
“The state does not have a requirement for this. This is a local board of education and local health department issue. The local board of education, constitutionally in North Carolina, is charged with providing the schools,” Williams said.
The school system does have the legal authority to make decisions about changing school start and end times, if Hoke administrators wanted to shorten school days because of the air conditioning problem. The local school board also has the legal authority to close the schools entirely if officials believe the conditions are bad enough.
“If the heat gets too high or if on the other side it gets too cold in the winter, they can close school, that’s up to them,” Williams said.
The local health department could also issue an environmental warning if the heat index is too high for people to be outside without air conditioning, he added.
The matter of air conditioning at Sandy Grove and Rockfish Hoke elementary schools is legally out of the state’s hands, Williams said.
“Here in Raleigh and the state department, we do not have authority over those issues,” he said.
Bryant said that, to her knowledge, the school board has not discussed changing the school day schedule at the two affected elementary schools. All North Carolina public schools are required to provide a certain number of hours of instructional time.
Currently, students are preparing for end-of-grade testing, which begins next Wednesday, May 27.
About 655 students are enrolled at Rockfish Hoke Elementary, and about 583 students attend Sandy Grove Elementary.