The new heat pumps at Blatchley Middle School replace similar equipment that was only eleven years old when in failed. The school district maintenance staff believe the original heat pumps may have been incorrectly installed, allowing some parts of the units to freeze in cold weather. (KCAW/Woolsey)

The heat is back on at Sitka’s Blatchley Middle School, and classes are expected to resume as usual on Wednesday (12-7-22) after students were unexpectedly sent home for four days during the installation of new heat pumps.

The return to warm classrooms concludes what has been a full year of chilly instruction for Sitka’s middle schoolers.

Blatchley principal Ben White is feeling upbeat about the prospect of a fully-heated building.

It’s been a while.

“Yeah, it’s been a calendar year since we’ve had a functional effective heat system,” said White. “It was November of last year when it shut down. And so as of last night, that would be December 5, at eight o’clock, we have half the units up and running and functioning very well, and the other half of the units should be hooked up in the next 24 to 48 hours. And they don’t anticipate any issues going forward with the continued hook up. But even with half the unit running, the building is already more completely heated than it has been in well, a year.”

The school had been getting by on space heaters, and a couple of the original heat pumps that were limping along, leaving conditions in the building tolerable, if not comfortable. There was no disruption of classes until Wednesday, November 30, when White sent a note informing parents that there would be no school for two days – Thursday and Friday – and then remote learning for another two days on Monday and Tuesday.

It happened to be the coldest part of the winter so far in Southeast Alaska, and the problem wasn’t a lack of output from the new heat pumps. The contractors, White says, had to test the other half of a heat pump system, and turn on the building’s air conditioning.

“It was a little ironic,” White said. “And when they told me that I had to laugh, but it’s part of the heating and cooling system. So they had to essentially purge that and make sure that system was functional. So it was kind of comical at that point. ‘Oh, of course, we’re gonna turn the air conditioning on.’”

White says the test run of the air conditioning took the temperature down to around 40 degrees in some classrooms.

The Sitka Assembly set aside $600,000 last August to purchase new heat pumps for the building, when district maintenance staff determined that the old heat pumps, which were just eleven years old, had failed beyond repair – likely the result of an installation method that just wasn’t suitable for Southeast Alaska. Fortunately, there was money to spare from surplus sales tax revenues from Sitka’s rebound in cruise tourism, and the new equipment was ordered, while the actual timeline for installing it remained an open question.

That the installation came during a cold snap wasn’t the best timing, but White is glad the situation is finally being resolved, and that Sitka’s middle-schoolers can return to learning without having to dress for the climate.

“We have lots of students and staff who do actually wear their winter hats and winter coats and gloves,” said White. “Students get to move throughout the school during the school day, they see seven different teachers each day. So part of their days was in heated rooms while part would be in rooms that weren’t heated. However, staff,  if you happen to be an unlucky teacher whose room didn’t have heat, you were frequently in a room all day long that might be 50 degrees. So it does start to take a toll.”

White says all Blatchley students will return to in-person learning, and buses will run on their usual schedule, as of Wednesday, December 7.