Snuggling in blankets, and wearing coats, stocking caps and hoodies with the hoods up might not be standard dress code in high school, but that was going to be part of the plan at Russell High School in coming days.
With temperatures in the single digits Wednesday, students at Russell High School were brainstorming how to carry on with school if their broken boiler system wasn’t repaired quickly.
“It’s going to be lemonade out of lemons, is what it’s going to be,” said USD 407 Superintendent Shelly Swayne, Wednesday afternoon.
The school’s 250 students, grades 9 through 12, were sent home around 1 p.m. Wednesday due to a broken boiler in the decades-old system.
“I told the kids sometime around 7 p.m. I’ll know more,” Swayne said. “They love that we’re flying by the seat of our pants.”
As it turns out, Swayne by 9 p.m. was announcing school would reopen on Monday, following emergency installation of a new boiler by American Boiler and Mechanical, Salina.
"We actually have a new boiler on its way," Swayne said Wednesday night. "They'll take off early around 6 a.m. It's going to be here Thursday and a crew is coming to run an emergency installation. We are highly confident we'll have heat rolling through our building by Sunday and open school by Monday."
The boiler system, which had been running cooler than normal anyway, was shut down Wednesday mid-day after discovery of a faulty boiler by American Boiler.
“We had American Boiler here looking at them anyway, and that’s basically when we discovered the issue,” Swayne said. “We uncovered one with a problem … a heat transfer case lost a seal and therefore the heat is escaping.”
The decision was made to shut down the system, so school was closed as well, Swayne said. A 1A basketball tournament scheduled Wednesday evening was moved to Barton County Community College, with Russell High School staff still running the tournament.
Meantime, Swayne said school officials met with students on student council to sort out what to do if the boiler system wasn’t back up by Thursday.
“Our students are extremely supportive,” Swayne said. “The student body brainstormed with us about what can we do if this doesn’t get fixed … we settled on some ideas that will require some bending of the rules in the handbook.”
The high school could hold classes in some community buildings, such as churches, fellowship halls and the city recreation center, students suggested.
“They were beautiful idea givers, I liked their ideas,” Swayne said. “The staff loved the kids’ ideas, and expanded on them.”
There was the possibility of a cold-weather schedule as well, starting later in the day and staying later, when the sun would be out and shining to warm the school.
That won't be necessary now, said Swayne. Instead, kids will have free days, and teachers will still be on the clock, using the two days to catch up on some research and observing other classrooms, and independent professional development online, she said.
"They will have some of that awesome professional development that has been gifted to us at this time," Swayne said.
Prior to Wednesday’s breakdown, the temperature in the school has been averaging about 60 degrees on recent severe cold days. Swayne said 65 degrees would be more conducive to learning, even though parents and old-timers may have attended in colder temperatures than that.
“There is an expectation in the 21st Century that we have an atmosphere that is a little better than that,” she said.
The existing three-boiler system was upgraded less than a decade ago through a competitive bid process. At the time, HVAC experts advised that a three-boiler system with 850,000 BTU’s per boiler would be adequate, said Swayne, who is in her first year in the school district.
“What we know a decade later and after four to five years of operating it, is it’s not enough,” she said. “It doesn’t heat the building to the point we’re comfortable.”
A special mail-in election this April is asking the registered voters of USD 407 to approve a $17.5 million bond issue, of which $11.5 million is for new HVAC and electrical at the district’s four schools. Of the district’s two elementary schools, middle school and high school, only the middle school has rooftop air conditioning units, as well as the library and office in the high school.
District parents in a recent survey by The Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University said new heating and central air-conditioning is a priority.
Meanwhile, the schools will make do, said Swayne.
“We just know we have a stockpile of great ideas that students, staff and leaders all collaborated on together,” she said.