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No Cool in School

Posted 10/13/2022 by Ben Morlan

Students try to keep cool at school as classroom temperatures soar. photo by Shana Saint-Phard

Thomas Jefferson High School is scheduled to have air conditioning installed in the summer of 2023 in a long-awaited renovation.

As Spartans returned to their beloved Thomas Jefferson High School campus in August, they were immediately thrust back into the reality of being students. Schoolwork, assignments, and teachers woke students up from their easygoing summer and put them back to work. For many, seeing classmates they might have lost contact with over the past three months was a welcome sight. But as they sat in their classrooms in the sun-baked building throughout the day, they were reminded of another reality: their school building is quite vintage. 

This summer, every weather station across the Front Range logged warmer-than-average temperatures, most of which were all-time high overnight temperatures. Denver saw 14 heat records broken in just three months and experienced its third-hottest summer on record. In more rural areas of the state, local news outlet 9News reported that Castle Rock and Greeley experienced their hottest summers ever. Denver’s Central Park was the eighth-warmest, Boulder was 25th-warmest, Centennial was the fourth-warmest, and Fort Collins tied for the second all-time warmest.

Many of the buildings across Colorado are decades old, built before air conditioning was commonplace and before Denver began experiencing much hotter average temperatures. As a result, in 2022, the buildings cannot keep their occupants comfortable and productive in the warmer months. Among these buildings are 31 schools managed by Denver Public Schools, accounting for 15% of the entire district. High classroom temperatures have become a considerable problem throughout Denver, with some classroom temperatures in August reaching the high 90s. Some parents, teachers, and district employees have expressed concerns about sending students back to school this early in the year given these conditions. Bernadette Jiron, president of the Paraprofessionals and Food Workers Union, said in an interview with FOX31 News in August, “the children were not concentrating on what they were doing because it was so uncomfortable inside there.” Jiron further described how teachers “have to open up their windows or they take the kids outside or they take them inside the gym to have them cool off there.” These environments, Jiron said, are not conducive to learning, especially for younger students.

In November 2020, Denver residents overwhelmingly voted to pass a $795 million bond that would allow Denver Public Schools to take on a plethora of projects. $128.5 million has been directed towards installing air conditioning at 24 schools that experience the highest temperatures, and $208 million towards “critical maintenance” across DPS’ five sub-districts. Construction for air conditioning began in 2021, and the final projects will begin in the summer of 2023.

Thomas Jefferson High School, located in Denver Public Schools District 1 in the southeastern part of the county, is one of the 24 schools that will receive air conditioning in 2023. For many students and staff members, this news could not have come fast enough. James Stephenson, a social studies teacher at TJ, described his experience working in one of the hottest rooms in the building. “I think the best way to describe it is like a sauna, that’s what I tell the students. We can all sweat out the toxins, but the sweats are no joke. It gets up to the lower 90s in here when it gets really hot [outside].”

Thomas Conroy, the facility operations supervisor at TJ, describes how temperatures can vary depending on one’s location within the building. “The top floor obviously gets hotter than the rest of the school. The south-facing classrooms, which see more of the afternoon sun increase to higher temperatures throughout the day.” He further explained the challenges of keeping a 62-year-old building cool during a hot school day. “The temperatures can normally be mitigated early in the day with the cooler overnight air, but once the core of the building reaches the upper 70s to lower 80s it gets more difficult to mitigate.” Some measures are in place to keep Spartans cool, though. Many teachers have fans (and even portable air conditioning units) in their classrooms, and large evaporative cooling fans are placed in the hallways to circulate air throughout the building. Additionally, part of the Center for Communication and Technology Magnet Program wing already has central air conditioning to keep vital computer equipment cool, and other areas, such as the gym, cafeteria, auditorium, art, ceramics, robotics, band, and choir rooms have air handlers that are normally used for central heating but can circulate air in the summer months.

While there is no central air conditioning currently in place for most students, every classroom is equipped with Magic Aire unit vents. In the winter, these supply heat to every room from hot water pumped throughout the structure from a central boiler. Each of these units contains a radiator that heats up, and a blower fan speeds along the air exchange and distributes hot air into the room, occasionally introducing outside air into the room when the temperature set by the unit’s internal thermostat is reached. The cooling solutions TJ will receive starting next summer build upon and retrofit the existing infrastructure for temperature control. “The current Magic Aire unit-vents in the classrooms currently supply heat… These will either get replaced or retrofitted to contain cold water piping as well as hot,” Conroy said. The Magic Aire company, which manufactures cooling solutions of all types, also produces units that can handle both cold and hot water. “So with the addition of a chiller, the cold water would run through these units and in essence act as central air for all students.”

The plan is slated to take two years and will start in June. “We can only hope that this can be accomplished within the first summer but it is a tremendous undertaking,” Conroy said. Additionally, other areas that do not have the Magic Aire units will receive new air handling units. “There may also be additional items that get accomplished, such as electrical panel upgrades, water drainage issues outside by the softball field and the Denver Health Clinic, and some irrigation issues addressed,” he added. 

Returning students and faculty have much to look forward to for the 2023-24 school year. With the Thomas Jefferson campus set to receive long overdue upgrades, Spartans will be guaranteed higher quality working and learning environments, allowing TJ to continue its decades-long mission of learning, challenging, and leading the next generation of American citizens.