DGS Update: Keeping Our Kids Cool and Safe in School

The number of hot classrooms, broken HVAC systems, and other facility issues reported last summer was unacceptable, and these failures cannot be repeated during school reopening this fall. Students, teachers, and administrators of DC Public Schools (DCPS) deserve safe and well-maintained classrooms. And parents deserve to know that their children are learning in an environment that is setting them up for success. As chair of the Committee on Government Operations and Facilities, I have been working closely with the Department of General Services (DGS), which maintains DCPS facilities, to learn how many schools currently have cooling issues, the status of repairs, and what contingency plans are for any broken AC systems as students and teachers head back to school.

DCPS families, staff, and administrators rightly have questions about what is being done to resolve hot classrooms and prevent them from happening in the first place.

I want to share with you an update on the steps my team and I have taken recently:

  • Crowdsourced the most urgent issues for the summer: In July, my office reached out to each ward’s councilmember, ward representative on the State Board of Education, and independent ward education policy advocacy alliance to learn about their biggest facilities issues. We then shared these directly with DGS to close gaps between their efforts and neighborhood priorities.
  • Worked with Councilmember Lewis George to help develop the Back-to-School Safely Emergency Amendment Act of 2022. This bill specifically seeks to address hot classrooms, school safety, and COVID preparedness. It requires DGS and DCPS to report key information on HVAC issues, physical security vulnerabilities, HEPA filtration systems, and other school readiness considerations. I’m proud to say that it passed the Council unanimously in July.
  • Engaged DGS Director Keith Anderson and other DGS leaders: We met on July 29 to discuss preparations for school year 2022-23. I was able to check on the status of ongoing issues and ask oversight questions to get ahead of back-to-school season. This was one of several check-ins and meetings my team has scheduled with Director Anderson leading up to the new school year.

Here are some of the key takeaways from my latest meeting with DGS Director Anderson:

What DGS is Doing About Hot Classrooms

  • As of July 29, the existing school HVAC dashboard showed ongoing work orders for cooling system problems at 106 out of 117 DCPS campuses. These varied from isolated hotspots to campus-wide outages.
  • DGS believes that some schools will need temporary solutions (contingency cooling) to be cool enough on the first day of school. I have emphasized to DGS that they need to work closely with DCPS to ensure that school communities are notified well in advance and in detail of any cooling issues anticipated to persist into the school year.

What You Should Know About Contingency Cooling

  • When indoor temperatures get higher than 78 degrees, due to problems with central cooling equipment that cannot be resolved immediately, DGS temporarily installs window AC units and/or large freestanding machines called spot coolers. I have consistently emphasized to DGS that their responsibility to students and teachers in a hot classroom does not end when a spot cooler is scheduled to be sent out. It ends when the classroom is a comfortable temperature.
  • I asked how DGS will solve the issue that occurs when the built-in thermostat on a cooling machine shows an in-range temperature (less than 78 degrees), but the other side of the room is still too hot. Now, each contractor must respond to reports of out-of-range temperatures within 2 hours and will typically be expected to arrive within 1 hour; they will be equipped with surface thermometers (also known as temperature guns) to better diagnose issues.
  • Window air conditioners are usually more effective than spot coolers, but DGS has increased its inventory of both types of machines because not every space can accommodate window units. I have emphasized that DGS tell all maintenance employees and contractors about the preference for window units so the most effective cooling mechanism is used.
  • Spot coolers are designed to vent either out a window or up into a drop ceiling. DGS has now determined that the drop ceiling method is typically less effective than the window method and has instructed its teams to use window venting wherever possible. Teachers and students should be prepared for this adaptation, as establishing a good seal around a vent duct in a window frame will help with comfort but may be less visually appealing than the ceiling method.

Update on How the Work Order Dashboard is Being Optimized

  • In April, my committee voted to put funding for the Government Space Maintenance and Repair Transparency (GovSMaRT) Dashboard in the budget. This will mandate an expansion of the existing HVAC dashboard to include all school work orders in the upcoming fiscal year.
  • DGS has been open about their concerns that the dashboard expansion will not be complete by the statutory deadline of October 1 because they want to refine ways to present work order information in a user-friendly way rather than simply placing information from their internal system online. In addition, many current dashboard entries say “Pending Assessment” instead of an estimated completion date.  The implementation delays and lack of detail do not meet the community’s reasonable expectations for transparency.

Update on Emery Recreation Center

  • DGS and the Council have received extensive reports of unacceptably hot conditions at Emery, where summer programming is happening. DGS is waiting on the delivery of 3 components before they can repair the blower assembly. They anticipated completion of this repair by mid-August. There are also recurring electrical issues that require periodic resets of the system.
  • DGS has deployed as much contingency cooling equipment as the site can support: 6 window units in the gym and 3 barrel units on the second floor. They report that these devices have provided cool temperatures in small spaces, but not fully accomplished cool temperatures in large spaces such as the gym. Director Anderson has visited the site, and the Department of Parks and Recreation may contemplate changes in program operations in response to the ongoing heat challenges.

School Water Leaks

  • DGS has been working to address issues at Savoy Elementary. DGS stated that there are currently no other large-scale projects to address pervasive water intrusion issues at any DCPS campus. I am requesting a more complete report on this topic. The Deputy Director for Facilities Management confirmed that addressing any leaks before the start of classes remains a major priority.

Next Steps From My Team

In closing, there is a lot to be done to ensure school facilities are ready to welcome back students this fall. My team and I are going to continue to work closely with DGS in the coming weeks ahead.

Here are some of our next steps:

  • On August 25 I will have another meeting with DGS Director Anderson, Chairman Mendelson, and DCPS leaders to get a status update on the open HVAC workorders, receive confidential school security updates pursuant to the Back-to-School Safely bill, and continue to press for detailed cooling action plans for the fall.
  • For the rest of the summer, I will be personally visiting schools in different Wards across the District to hear directly about ongoing issues.

Thank you for taking the time to read this latest update. I’m grateful to be able to work for and in partnership with residents to ensure our students, teachers, and administrators have a safe and comfortable school environment, and I will continue the full court press to ensure we have a successful back-to-school season.

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