Heat, water issues close some Baltimore schools Tuesday and Wednesday

Four Baltimore city schools were closed because of heating or water issues Tuesday, keeping students home on what was supposed to be their first day back from winter break.

Woodhome Elementary/Middle, Elementary/Middle Alternative Program and Frederick Elementary either closed or dismissed early due to water problems, according to district officials. Lakeland Elementary/Middle released students at 12:45 p.m. because of school-wide issues with the heating system.

“Over the winter break, facilities staff monitored schools to check on heating systems, plumbing, and electricity,” city schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said in a statement. “Numerous problems were identified and resolved. Unfortunately, with the extreme temperatures, new problems can emerge quickly.”

Parents, students and teachers posted on school media that the heat-related issues were far more widespread than in just those four schools. Some tweeted photos of children huddled in classrooms wearing thick winter coats. Others posted images of thermometers showing frigid temperatures inside of city school buildings.

Baltimore is home to some of the state’s oldest school infrastructure. Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen has declared a “code blue” through the end of the week, meaning the city currently faces dangerously cold weather.

“We have many schools with leaky windows and outdated heating systems that have a hard time keeping up,” House-Foster said. “With extreme temperatures, we have the added challenge of freezing pipes and water main breaks.”

Jeffrey San Filippo, a social studies teacher at Calverton Elementary/Middle, said he could hardly feel a difference between the weather outside and the cold inside the school. He posted a photo to Twitter showing the mercury in his classroom hitting the mid-30s around 9 a.m. His students spent about half of the school day learning in the cafeteria, where he said it was slightly warmer.

He questioned how the district makes decisions to close schools during freezing weather. “When it’s too cold to be inside classes, that’s just way too far,” San Filippo said.

House-Foster said the district tries to keep its buildings open “whenever possible,” to ensure students have the opportunity to learn and receive services from the school, such as free meals and after-school care. Facilities staff are on-call to respond to issues, she said.

“Only when problems affect large portions or all of a building do we make the decision to close the school,” House-Foster said. “This occurred with the schools that were closed today.”

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English said in a statement that “the safest measure would be to close schools until the District can repair the heating issues in our schools city-wide.”

“These dangerously low temperatures have a major impact on the learning environment our educators are working to provide for their students,” English said. “There’s no way they can teach, and children can learn, in classrooms with no heat.”

Late Tuesday night, the district tweeted that four schools — Calverton, Elementary/Middle Alternative Program, KIPP Harmony Academy and Lakeland — would be closed Wednesday due to “facilities issues.”

Councilman Zeke Cohen said parents in his district called to alert him of extremely cold temperatures in Patterson High School and Graceland Park/O'Donnell Heights Elementary/Middle School, among others.

“As a new parent of a daughter who will someday be a student in city schools, it is unacceptable the way we treat our young people,” he said. “I wouldn’t want my daughter learning in frigid temperatures, and I don’t want anyone else’s child learning in that environment either. This needs to be fixed immediately.”

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous addressed the cold classrooms in a live-streamed speech Tuesday evening. He said the circumstances in many Baltimore city schools highlights the need for more education funding.

A study released last year estimated it would take an additional $1.9 billion in state funding and $1 billion in local funding to adequately fund Maryland’s schools. In Baltimore, schools require an additional $358 million annually, the report found.

A state commission charged with revamping the funding formula for Maryland public schools announced in October that it would delay policy recommendations until after the 2018 state elections.

“Until we fully fund out schools, none of it really works,” Jealous said. “Until we fully fund our schools, we keep condemning thousands of children every year to something less than their full potential.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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