Hats and scarves required in classrooms as OUSD works to restore heat
on December 8, 2010
Clad in faux fur-lined jackets and knee-high reindeer-patterned socks, students in Mrs. Cohn’s second grade class at Chabot Elementary School passed the rainy Wednesday morning practicing new vocabulary: “If you’re cold, you’re chilly. If you’re really cold, what are you?” Cohn asked her class. “Frozen,” the students replied over the whirring sound of the heating vents.
Until Monday morning, Chabot, like several other schools in the Oakland Unified School District, was still struggling to heat all of its classrooms in the cold days following Thanksgiving break. Last week in the school’s newly constructed “D-building,” which houses first and second grade students, teachers were forced to hold class in the hallways, administrators said, which were warmer than the unheated classrooms.
“It was pretty cold when we got back from break, and it caught everyone off-guard,” said the Chabot administrative assistant Margaret Thorp. “The kids had to stay bundled up, and the teachers had to adjust their lesson plans. It was hard on everybody.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, 21 school sites in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) were still waiting to their heating systems to be fixed. 70 sites have reported experiencing heating issues since the end of November. District spokesperson Troy Flint said that the problems mainly stemmed from OUSD’s practice of shutting off the power and heat during elongated breaks, such as the week of Thanksgiving, in order to save money when children are not in school.
“It’s a good idea on paper to save money, but in practice it hasn’t panned out, because we have old equipment which doesn’t take well to being shut down and restarted,” Flint said. “I think we just have to realize that this was one effort to cut costs that had too high of a social price, and it’s not worth it.”
The heating problems at some school sites have coincided with recent visits from parents who are trying to decide which school their children will attend next fall. (OUSD currently has an options enrollment system in which students can complete an application process to attend any school within the district.)
Parent Charles Margulis, whose daughter will start kindergarten next school year, described the chilly welcome he received a few weeks ago while touring some of the portable classrooms at Melrose Leadership Academy in East Oakland, which he was drawn to because of the school’s Spanish immersion program. “During our few minutes in the first portable it was clear that the room had no heat,” Margulis wrote in an email to Oakland North. “The teacher and students were all wearing coats, and many kids were wearing gloves and hats, as it was about the same temperature inside as outside.”
When they commented on the lack of heat, Margulis said that parents were told by the school’s principal that the portable classrooms had not had heat since summer, and that five calls from the school to the OUSD facilities department had gone unanswered. Current OUSD records show that heating repairs were completed at Melrose on November 30th.
“We’ve heard a good number of complaints from parents,” regarding heating repairs, said Flint during a phone interview on Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t have an exact comparison, but anecdotally, it definitely seems that this year was worse than our heating issues in previous years. We’ve had to cut the number of technicians who handle these problems in half, but we were hoping to have all the repairs done by this Monday. It’s caused a reexamination of the way that we manage the process.”
While they were waiting for their repairs last week, Chabot emailed parents asking for volunteers to bring in space heaters for the classrooms. Administrators at Chabot said they received a few space heaters in response, but could not give an exact number.
Teachers at Chabot, where heat was restored earlier this week, say that now that the their classrooms are warmer, they can do their jobs a lot more easily. “The worst part of a cold classroom is the furniture,” said second grade teacher Mrs. Yeider. “Sitting on cold seats, writing on cold desks, typing on cold keyboards—it’s really unpleasant. No one wants to get any work done like that.”
“The kids seem to do okay,” Yeider added. “But I think it’s really hard on the adults.”
Now, the hallways at Chabot elementary school remain chilly, but the classrooms are heated. On Wednesday morning, one second grade student peeled off her wool-lined boots and rain-sprinkled jacket before entering her class, flashing a smile at a group of adults waiting in the hallway. “It was really cold last week, but it’s way better now,” she said before returning to her classroom. “We still have to wear jackets outside now, but inside it’s really nice.”
OUSD officials say that in order to avoid a similar heating problem after winter break, the district is considering keeping the heat on over the holidays. “It will cost more money. Maybe another couple of hundred thousand for the break,” said Flint. “There’s no obvious place that the money will come from, but we’ll have to find it from someplace else because we can’t have cold and unfocused students in our schools.”
“Turning the heat off was really a flawed concept to implement,” Flint added. “This can’t and won’t happen again.”
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