WESTERLY — The coldest January on record has brought to the forefront a heating issue at State Street Elementary that has lingered since the school was built in the mid-1950s.
Single-digit temperatures combined with an old building not designed to support New England weather left four classrooms with insufficient heat. Temperatures in a couple of those rooms dropped below 50 degrees, forcing officials to move students out of the classrooms earlier this month.
Principal Audrey Faubert said Wednesday that three classrooms of students were moved for two days, although none have been moved this week. Those classes were held in the cafeteria and library.
Superintendent Roy Seitsinger Jr. said that during the winter, the normal temperature in common areas and most rooms in the school is 66.2 degrees or above.
“The district is working to address the heating issues in each classroom,” said Seitsinger, who toured the building late Monday night while work on the ducts was being done in the four rooms. He also did a walk-through this morning.
“It is clearly not an acceptable circumstance, and we are taking what measures we can to rectify the situation,” Seitsinger said.
Seitsinger said the heat never went out in the classrooms, but was inadequate. Several fixes have been put into place, including rerouting the ductwork and installing new electric baseboard heating. Space heaters have been used as well.
The district also will take two additional steps: officials are looking into insulating the school’s ceiling and walls and pricing replacements for the original doors in most classrooms, which lead directly outside.
“All families received a notice about inconsistent temperatures in the school in the late fall-early winter,” Faubert said. “The staff and School Improvement Team were kept up to date on the most recent heating issues via email.”
Still, the most recent heating issues have upset the parents, said Laura Ross, who has two children in the school.
“When my son (a first-grader) comes home, I usually ask him how his day went,” Ross said. “Now I ask him every day if he was warm enough at school. It’s ridiculous.”
Ross, who volunteers in her children’s classrooms every Monday, said she and her children wear at least three layers of clothing to school now.
She said that since her oldest, a third-grader, began attending the school, heating issues have been a problem, calling them “spotty,” but never as bad as she’s seen this school year.
“What I’m afraid of is the school is so old and the heating system is so very heavily taxed that something major is going to happen, we’re not going to have any heat and kids can’t go to school,” Ross said. “I think we’re close to a crisis moment at State Street. I really do.”
State Street School is 60 years old and its Floridian building style has proved to be a problem in harsh winters.
The four rooms that are most affected in the school are north-facing and are operating with equipment original to the building.
Seitsinger said the estimated cost to fully replace equipment in all four rooms could reach several hundred thousand dollars, excluding structural work.
According to a note that Faubert sent to the school staff and members of the School Improvement Team, the district took steps in the fall to try and head off the heating problems.
Additional heat was installed in two classrooms and space heaters were purchased for another eight classrooms. And the district insulated crawl and attic spaces where the tubing for the heat passes through. But the dramatic temperature drops proved too much.
“I have been a principal here for four years,” Faubert said, “and haven’t had to move classrooms for heating issues before.”
Faubert wrote in the note: “I have to commend the staff and students for being so flexible and taking their learning to new places (literally) with minimal disruption to learning … hope for warmer temperatures!”
Over the last three-and-half years, Seitsinger said, the school system has spent at least $800,000 on State Street Elementary on repairs and renovations. Among the investments were a new roof to combat widespread leaks and installation of a new boiler.
Ross said she believes more needs to be done for State Street, specifically to combat the heating issues.
“We’re in reactionary mode, we patch to get us through,” she said. “It’s a day-to-day thing, let’s see if this works or that works. We go to Plan B and then to Plan C. At this point, I guess that’s all you can do. It’s very frustrating. We’re all concerned.
“I witnessed on one day a teacher, as well as students, actually wearing winter coats in class.”
Seitsinger said if the district starts repairing or renovating State Street, it must do the same for all of its elementary schools.
He said he believes the repairs, renovations or construction costs could rise to $30 million for the four schools: State Street, Dunn’s Corners, Bradford and Springbrook.
The condition of the elementary schools has been an issue for both the School Committee and the Town Council.
“That is the point of the Vision 2020 priorities of preparing for a major bond for all of the elementary schools,” Seitsinger said.