Bob Hershey looked at the forecast for today's record-setting low temperatures and realized that the extreme cold would call for some extreme measures.
So, on Monday afternoon, the Appoquinimink School District's facilities management supervisor made an unusual request of his 16 daytime chief custodians.
"I asked them if they would be willing to spend the night at their schools in case the low temperatures and high winds created any problems for us," he explained Tuesday. "It's not something I've ever asked before, and to be fair, I didn't give them much notice. But to a man and a woman, they agreed to do it without the slightest hesitation. As it turned out, it's a good thing they did."
While most of the chief custodians made it through the night without any serious issues, Dennis Scott's overnight stay at Olive B. Loss Elementary might have saved the school from serious damage.
A district employee since 2002, Scott had just finished his final rounds for the night and opted to forgo a few hours of sleep in the nurses office for a quick cat nap on the floor of his own office.
But not long after falling asleep, the head custodian received a rude awakening about 4:30 a.m.
"I woke up because I felt water on my feet," he said. "It turns out, a heating unit on the roof over a storage room right next to my office had cracked and was leaking, but when I went to shut off the water, the valve broke off in my hand. It was like something out of a movie."
Scott eventually managed to find another shutoff valve before the leak spread much further, saving all but a few boxes of printer paper in the storage room.
"If he hadn't been there it could have been a lot worse," Hershey said.
Last Sunday, a similar leak over the main reception desk at Loss Elementary required a significant clean-up effort before school opened Monday morning.
MOT Charter School experienced a similar issue Sunday night when one of its pipes burst, causing the school to close Monday while crews worked to clean up the mess.
"All of our heating and cooling equipment have emergency dial-out capabilities so they can automatically notify staff when something has failed," Hershey said. "That's fine through most of the winter, but in situations like the extreme weather we had this week, even that response time can be too slow, which is exactly why I asked our people to stay the night. There's no replacement for hard-working and dedicated staff."
The daytime head custodians at each of the district's schools are slated to spend the night at their posts again tonight when temperatures will dip into the teens.
Page 2 of 2 - "These men and women are really going above and beyond the normal call of duty, and doing a great service for the district in the process," said Superintendent Matthew Burrows. "A pipe can burst at any time and cause a lot of damage before they're discovered, so we greatly appreciate the sacrifice these folks are making on our behalf."
While this week's record cold increased the risk of broken pipes and other equipment malfunctions, Burrows said that decision to close schools in the Appoquinimink School District had almost nothing to do with machinery.
"I was in communication with other superintendents in the county, but what really convinced me was that the temperatures and wind chills that were being forecast meant a child could suffer frostbite or hypothermia within five minutes of exposure," he said. "We have students who walk to school or wait for the bus for longer than five minutes. And, unfortunately, not all of them have the type of clothing necessary to protect them during such harsh conditions."
Burrows noted that 17 of the state's 18 public school districts also came to the same conclusion.
The Appoquinimink School District is expected to reopen on time Wednesday morning, he said.
"It's still going to be cold out, but the wind chill isn't expected to be as much of a factor as it was today," he said. "But I would still recommend that all parents use their best personal judgment and keep their children at home if they feel the conditions are unsafe."