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It's been hot - and some schools are, too

By: carol mcgraw AND dEBBIE kELLEY The Gazette
August 30, 2013 Updated: August 30, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Teachers at West Elementary and Middle School are placing ice buckets in front of fans to help cool warm classrooms.

At 60-year-old Taylor Elementary School, kids are lining up after recess to be spritzed with water from spray bottles to beat the heat.

In other schools in Colorado Springs School District 11, building workers are keeping shades or blinds closed and turning off some lights to lower indoor temperatures.

This week's heat wave hit as it usually does, just as school starts.

Students all over the state have been sweltering as temperatures soared in school buildings without air conditioning. Some schools had early releases or were closed, using their snow days.

In the Midwest, some districts have been long suffering. In Hastings, Neb., students have been dismissed early each day for the last two weeks because of high temperatures, news reports noted.

There is some relief in sight from 90-degree days. Students are out for the three-day Labor Day Holiday. The National Weather Service forecasts that when they return next Tuesday, the temperature locally will be about 83 degrees and drop to about 77 degrees by Sept. 8.

Not all schools were melting this week.

Many in the Pikes Peak region have been so concerned about how heat affects learning that they have made cooling system budget priorities, even though hot spells are intermittent.

Most of the cooling systems come on board when new schools are built or there are major renovations to existing buildings. Some were paid for by bonds and grants.

It's mainly the older schools, some 50 years old or more, that are taking the brunt of 80-, 90- and 100-degree temperatures.

"The first few weeks can be a little uncomfortable," said Devra Ashby, D-11 spokeswoman.

Sixteen schools in D-11, Colorado Springs' largest and oldest, are not fully air conditioned. The amount of air conditioning in the buildings ranges from 2 percent at Monroe Elementary to 98 percent at Doherty High. Another 40 schools and district buildings are 100 percent air conditioned.

Partial air conditioning usually accommodates computer labs and other equipment rooms but not general classrooms, where kids can be seen fanning themselves.

Unlike schools in other states, Colorado schools don't usually close because of the heat, Ashby said. Schools in Denver and Fort Collins became the exception this week, shutting down because of the hot weather.

"Every building manager in our district has been given a digital thermometer to measure the heat index, but with our local climate it's unlikely we ever really have conditions that present a heat-related health hazard in the schools," Ashby said.

HVAC systems in schools that aren't fully air conditioned take advantage of the cooler nighttime air and pump it into the buildings, she added.

Teachers also are taught how to keep students hydrated, Ashby said, but parents who are concerned about the conditions can choose to pick their children up from school early.

"It wouldn't make sense for us to call off school for the whole district because of the heat, when the majority of our buildings are air conditioned," Ashby said. "And if we did, that would extend our school year into June, another hot month. We've had some kids tell us thanks for keeping the school open because it's cooler than their house.

"We know it's warm, but we do watch out for the safety of the kids, and parents have the ultimate say."

D-11 is on a mission to provide air conditioning in every school and this year added units at Mark Twain Elementary.

Harrison School District 2 has central air in all 19 schools. There are some large spaces that aren't on air, such as second gymnasiums and auditoriums.

"We felt it was important to remove a barrier for teachers and children to focus on learning and not be miserable," said spokeswoman Christine Lyle.

In the 1990s, D-2 made the air and heating system part of a bond election.

"Everyone is pleased because the kids are comfortable," Lyle said.

They are also striving to be more green.

D-2 last year installed a climate control system that can be monitored from the district office. It allows the district to keep temperatures even and has helped lower utility bills.

All of the buildings in Widefield School District 3 are now cooled. It took 12 months to equip the 15 schools at a cost of about $350,000 for each building.

"We believe students and staff can concentrate better in a cool and comfortable setting, which ultimately can help boost achievement all the way around," said Samantha Briggs, D-3 spokeswoman.

Out on the fairly treeless prairie east of Colorado Springs, temperatures can be grueling, particularly if the wind is blowing around dust and doors remain closed.

But at Calhan District RJ1, a geothermal heating and cooling system was installed four years ago. Before that, some classrooms at times registered more than 92 degrees.

"Before we installed it, it was impossible to breathe on hot days and hard to learn," said Calhan Superintendent Linda Miller.

Geothermal systems are pipes drilled into the ground which use water and other liquids to heat and cool. In winter the Earth's natural heat is transferred to heat the building. During summer and fall, the process is reversed, and the heat that builds up is transferred back into the ground. The Calhan system has 81 wells that were dug 400 feet deep.

The district was able to obtain a $305,000 state BEST grant to replace an old propane heating and air system. Building Excellent Schools Today provides capital construction funds to address safety and health concerns.

"We keep it at 75 degrees, it's very nice and cool," Miller said.

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