5 Baltimore City schools remain closed, 3 more closing early amid widespread heating problems

Officials said nearly all of Baltimore’s public schools are expected to reopen for classes Monday after the school district, the city and private contractors spent the weekend addressing heating outages that left students in frigid classrooms and prompted a districtwide closure Friday.

But five city schools are closed to students Monday due to facilities issues. At 9:50 a.m., the school system announced the whole district would close 3 hours early.

The district said Sunday evening that Calverton Elementary/Middle School is scheduled to remain closed Monday, and around 7:30 a.m. — after additional checks of facilities — the district added Bay-Brook Elementary/Middle, James McHenry Elementary/Middle and Furley Elementary schools to that list.

Around 8 a.m., the school system announced that Lakewood Elementary School would be dismissing students “as a result of a pipe that has burst this morning.”

At the same time the system announced the district would close early, it announced three other schools would close at 10:15 a.m. “due to heat-related problems.” Those schools: Guilford Elementary/Middle School, Medfield Heights Elementary School and Independence School Local.

Updated school delays and closings for Baltimore area »

About 60 school buildings experienced heat-related problems last week. Images of students huddling in thick winter coats and classroom thermometers reading in the 30s and 40s went viral. The photos re-ignited concerns about the condition of the city’s education infrastructure; politicians traded blame. The city is home to some of the oldest school buildings in the state, and its leaders have long contended that the district is severely underfunded.

District officials worked through the weekend to address heating and pipe problems across the city. They set up an emergency operations center in the district’s North Avenue headquarters to track progress on the repairs.

“The day of reckoning has come,” city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said Sunday. “We all knew. State knew. District knew. City knew. We’ve had numerous reports that have talked about the age of the buildings.

“We, frankly, had the blessing of really warm winters. But now, under pressure of extended cold, the chickens are coming home to roost.”

The National Weather Service forecast a low of 14 degrees Sunday night, and a high near 32 degrees Monday. Meteorologists warned of slippery conditions that come along with ice and some light, wet snow. There is a winter weather advisory across Central Maryland on Monday.

While most repairs were completed by Sunday afternoon, officials said facilities staff would continue to monitor problem buildings. Problems with heat at Frederick Douglass High School in Mondawmin had been fixed when a pipe burst, causing crews to return to the school. Officials are wary of similar problems at other schools around the city.

“We don’t want the children to walk in and all of a sudden — boom — a pipe bursts,” Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said.

Santelises said the “unprecedented” number of heating problems overwhelmed the school district and caused officials to set up new protocols for responding to problems and keeping parents and guardians informed.

“Normally, if we have four or five — which is about average — schools that might go offline at one time, that’s easy to manage,” she said. “When you have 60, we did not have, in all fairness, processes that allowed us to get the information out to families quickly, in a timely manner.”

In a letter Sunday to parents, students, faculty and staff, Santelises promised heated buildings, and improved communication.

“Beginning tomorrow, here’s what you can expect: Every student will be in a safe, warm learning space, or the school won’t be open,” Santelises wrote. “If it is necessary to close any individual schools tomorrow or to delay opening, we will notify you as early as possible.”

Principals will ensure that temperatures are checked regularly throughout their buildings, she wrote.

While facilities staff worked on repairs, a GoFundMe campaign to buy coats, scarves and gloves for students and space heaters for classrooms topped $74,000 Sunday afternoon.

“We’re in contact with the fire department to see what the safest options are,” said organizer Samierra Jones, a 22-year-old Coppin State student. “We know the schools are suffering from poor infrastructure and we don’t want to cause a fire hazard, so we’re moving very strategically in terms of how we’re going to distribute space heaters.”

Aaron Maybin, a former NFL player from Baltimore who now works at Matthew A. Henson Elementary, has been closely involved with the fundraising efforts. Maybin and Jones spent the weekend hosting clothing drop-offs throughout the city. Donors could deliver winter gear for Baltimore students. Organizers plan to reach out to individual schools throughout the week to assess their needs and order supplies.

“We want to analyze each situation and give the people what they need,” Maybin said.

Maybin posted a video last week of his students talking about the bitter cold in their classrooms.

“I refuse for the environment in my classroom to be the same as it was last week,” he said Sunday.

Only a few city schools closed on Tuesday and Wednesday last week — the students’ first two days back from winter break — due to problems with heating and piping systems. But students and teachers said there were problems in many of the schools that remained open. All schools were closed Thursday and Friday, as facilities staff worked to resolve the widespread problems.

Pugh, who called in city agencies and private contractors to aid with the repairs, said she is hopeful that Baltimore will receive federal funding for that work and for the roughly 90 water main breaks throughout the city through Sunday afternoon.

“We know that the federal government is focused on infrastructure,” Pugh said. “This is an infrastructure problem. While we get monies from the state and the city kicks in money, this is an infrastructure problem.”

She assigned Director of Public Works Rudy Chow to the school district’s emergency operations center, where he was overseeing public works, general services crews and other city resources.

Chow said he was balancing his time between the school operations center and a separate center the public works department set up to respond to water main breaks. Officials said water main breaks in the city should be reported to 311 and breaks in Baltimore County should be reported to 410-396-5352. The Department of Public Works has set up an interactive online map to track water main breaks on its website.

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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