Crews keep students, staff warm during coldest days of the year

On the rare occasion that Houston temperatures drop to freezing, it’s not just people who may struggle to get going in the morning. HISD schools and buses need extra time to warm up, too.

But for every cozy classroom or bus ride, there is a team that has braved the weather in the dark and early morning hours to make learning environments comfy and safe for students’ arrival.

They are the cold-start crews – the ones who are called in when temperatures drop to 32 degrees and below.

Though this weekend’s cold front isn’t expected to bring a hard freeze, January and February are still the coldest months of the year and the crews stand ready.

“There are about 20 of us who will survey quadrants of the city,” said Transportation Services General Manager John Wilcots IV, who will be dispatched at 2:30 a.m. to check bus routes for icy conditions if a hard freeze occurs.

If streets and bridges are safe, his team’s biggest challenge will be getting a fleet of nearly 1,000 buses warm in time for when drivers report for duty.

“We take on the responsibility of starting the buses early for them,” Wilcots said, further explaining that it takes about an hour and a half to warm up the interior of a school bus since it is made of tin and steel.

Buildings take their time, too.

“Our goal is to have our schools nice, crispy, and warm by the time staff and students walk in the door,” said Ricardo Hinojosa, who oversees the district’s HVAC technicians as Senior Manager of Facilities Maintenance.

To achieve this, his team’s work starts by letting pumps run throughout the night to prevent pipes from bursting. They then return to campuses at about 3 a.m. to ensure the boilers that heat the building are working.

When plant operators arrive about two hours later to get a jump start on opening and preparing their respective schools, they’ll fire up the boilers and place emergency work orders if they discover any issues.

In temporary buildings and stadiums that don’t have plant operators or broilers, HISD’s plumbers take charge.

Their main concerns are the restrooms, and, if given proper notice, will start preparing a week in advance to shut off water valves, drain lines, and fill toilet bowls with antifreeze.

“We always take precautions, but typically don’t go into alarm mode unless we’re dealing with 17 to 15 degrees for two days,” said South Maintenance Plumbing Team Lead Nathaniel Norris, who has experienced his fair share of frigid mornings during his 40 years with the district.

Norris may not have to put his experience to the test this weekend, but he said he’ll be ready when the time comes.