The Times West Virginian

January 28, 2014

School maintenance workers never let up

By Chelsi Baker
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — For students, snow days in Marion County are potentially fun-filled days in a winter wonderland. After sleeping in, children are hard at work on snow day activities: snowmen, sledding, snacks and TV.

Marion County Schools maintenance workers, however, are just hard at work.

“We’ve moved quite a bit of snow,” said maintenance supervisor Brad Straight. “Right now, we’re trying to move it back as much as we can because we’re not sure what new snow we may get.”

Workers reported up to 12 inches of snow at schools in more rural areas, all of which needed relocated to keep students and faculty safe when they return.

School parking lots and sidewalks have been well-maintained, even with relentless winter conditions. Oftentimes school lots are plowed and treated before roads are, Straight said.

“Of course, they have a lot more roads than we do lots.”

To get the job done, the maintenance department breaks Marion County down into three areas — the east, west and north. They send trucks out on a route from school to school in each area to plow and treat the pavement, focusing on the outlying areas first.

“If something would happen, like if there’s a lot of snow and we can’t get out, we’ve already lessened our impact on our outer areas. We can deal with something close by,” said Straight.

There are usually 10 workers out at any given time using five trucks for snow removal.

When they anticipate snow, the maintenance department loads trucks up with salt and other necessary materials the night before and pulls them into garages so they are clean and ready to go the next morning. Workers know their routes for the next day, so they can get right to work.

The department sent out five trucks Sunday afternoon to clear school parking lots of snow after the weekend weather. As of 8 p.m. Sunday, most of the lots were cleared, except for small mountains of snow at the edges proving just how much work they did.

“They have done a commendable job in face of adversity,” said Gary Price, Superintendent of Schools. “It’s one thing to be out there shoveling ice and snow, but it’s another thing to do that when the temperatures are in single digits. That gets to be a more difficult task in subzero temps because, as those who are dealing with their own sidewalks or driveways know, once snow and ice freezes like that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get that up.”

Schools get a stockpile of salt and a spreader before ice builds up because it usually is up to custodians to treat sidewalks as needed. However, there’s no use for salt right now because it can’t combat the stubborn ice created by freezing temperatures.

“We haven’t been putting it out the last week because the temperatures are so low, what they threw out the first day was still laying on the ground. It stopped being able to work at those low temperatures. Most of them call me and I tell them to hold off until we see that it’s starting to work, then we can reapply,” said Straight.

The freezing temperatures have been a major factor when deciding to cancel school, Price said. Not only is the stubborn ice taking away safe places for students to stand while waiting for the bus in the mornings, but also the frigid temperatures are just too dangerous for children to be outside very long.

Cold weather also threatens the school buildings themselves.

Straight keeps heating systems running day and night to prevent the temperature inside from dropping, causing pipes to burst.

Furnaces run through an automated system, going from “occupied” mode when students are in the building to “unoccupied” when they leave.

“If you go to ‘unoccupied,’ sometimes some of the pumps in the circulating system shut down. If you shut those pumps down, you get no circulation and you can have a room out on the far end of the building that could freeze,” Straight said. “We’ve had that happen before, so now we go to ‘occupied mode’ and we run everything just as though they would run during the day time with students in.”

Running the heat also ensures the buildings will stay as close to a desired temperature of 68-70 degrees inside. Anything lower than that is not ideal for students and has to be taken into consideration when canceling school, said Straight.

The maintenance department doesn’t always focus on snow removal during snow days; they take advantage of days off to finish other projects.

Workers have laid tiles, installed a water fountain and completed other projects while students were gone.  

“At one school, we were getting ready to put in some monitors, and they were afraid we would shut the electric off on their computers because they were taking tests at that time. Now, with the days off, we can go in, cut the power, put the monitors in and put it back together,” said Straight.

Whether they’re inside or outside the schools, workers get the job done.

“We’re always on the job. Our guys, they really are,” Straight boasts. “They’re really conscientious, like it’s their buildings. They do take pride in their work.”

Workers are used to the cold weather at this point, and know to bundle up and take breaks inside when they get too cold. However, their work ethic doesn’t keep them from dreaming of a warmer place.

“I’ve heard the word ‘Florida’ a few times,” Straight said.

Email Chelsi Baker at cbaker@timeswv.com.