In the ceramic-tiled bathrooms at Marshall High School near Tysons Corner, the chrome faucets pour out a steady flow of icy water. Those students wishing to wash their hands with warm or hot water are out of luck.
Marshall is one of 32 aging Fairfax County schools that lack warm or hot water in all or most of the student bathrooms, according to Fairfax County Public School records.
Approximately 27,000 students are taught in the schools, comprising nearly 17 percent of the school system's total 163,500 student population. The school buildings, typically built in the 1960s or earlier, are located across Fairfax County in communities like Oakton, Great Falls, Falls Church, Annandale, Mount Vernon, Reston and Vienna.
Twenty-three schools have no warm or hot water in the student bathrooms. An additional nine school buildings lack hot water in many of their bathrooms. At Freedom Hill Elementary School in Vienna, for example, the faucets run only cold water in the downstairs boys and upstairs girls bathrooms.
Without warm or hot water in bathrooms, health officials contend, students of all ages are less likely to wash their hands properly — particularly during the colder months.
"If it's cold water, you're going to be less inclined to keep your hands under there," said Kimberly Cordero, spokeswoman for the Fairfax County Health Department. "Who would want to wash their hands in freezing cold water?"
CONTRARY TO popular belief, hot water does not kill germs — unless the water is boiling. However, hand-washers are more likely to scrub their hands with soap for the recommended 20 seconds if the water is warm, Cordero said.
Over the past two years, the health department has posted laminated hand-washing instructions in school and restaurant bathrooms throughout Fairfax County. The "Your Health is in Your Hands" signs, which feature a caped cartoon mascot known as "Soapbob Nopants," urge citizens to "destroy germs" by washing their hands with soap and warm or hot water.
Proper hand-washing significantly reduces the spread of diseases like pink-eye, hepatitis-A, norovirus, salmonella, influenza and whooping cough, according to the health department.
"It's most definitely a health concern," said Ramona Morrow, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "If the kids can't wash their hands in warm water, they're probably not going to wash their hands at all. That's not a good thing."
IN AN IDEAL WORLD, the Fairfax County school system would retrofit the plumbing in each of the bathrooms and locker rooms in the 33 schools to include hot water.
But a $1.4 billion backlog of school construction and renovation projects means the hot water upgrades will only occur as the school buildings are renovated.
"We believe these bathrooms should have hot water, but our policy is to wait until it's the school's turn to be renovated," said Dean Tistadt, the school system's chief operating officer.
Marshall High School, for example, is slated to undergo a $66.8 million renovation in the coming years, though no specific completion date has yet been set, according to Fairfax County capital improvement records.
At least three Fairfax County schools — Edison High in Alexandria and Woodson High in Fairfax and Sandburg Middle in Mount Vernon — also lack hot water in their locker rooms, according to school records.
Tistadt said the school system does not view the lack of hot water as an imminent health concern. Rather, hot water in student bathrooms and locker rooms is seen as one important renovation project competing against countless other construction needs.
"The health department will tell you: Hot water doesn't kill any more germs than cold water," he said. "Still, would it be nice to have hot water in these bathrooms? Of course. Eventually we will."
Though Tistadt was not working for the school system when the 32 schools were built, he said he believes they were built without hot water fixtures in the bathrooms to save money on copper piping.
PHIL NIEDZIELSKI-EICHNER, chairman of the School Board's facilities committee, said he has not heard any complaints from parents about a lack of hot or warm water in their children's school bathrooms.
Moreover, Niedzielski-Eichner said, he is confident that all Fairfax County students are washing their hands properly, regardless of the water's temperature.
"As long as they’re washing their hands with soap, that's the important thing," he said. "In the ideal circumstance, everyone would wash their hands with warm water. But I'm sure all the kids are washing their hands correctly."
School Board Member Tessie Wilson (Braddock) said the issue has come up a few times in the past, along with complaints about a lack of soap in student bathrooms and about faucets that turn off too quickly.
"I know it's a concern on the part of some parents," she said.
Many parents, as well as their children, probably do not realize their child's school lacks warm or hot water in the student bathrooms.
Mary Monie, mother of two boys at Oakton Elementary School, said she had never heard that the 61-year-old school does not have hot or even warm water in its student bathrooms.
"Even if there isn't hot water, I'm not that concerned," said Monie, the school's PTA president. "If the water's hot, it's not going to kill any more germs and it might burn the little ones' hands. But I do think that in the winter time, the kids would be less likely to wash their hands."