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baltimoresun.com

Westowne needs air conditioning — now

12:00 PM EDT, May 26, 2013

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On May 22 at 10:30 a.m., it was 86 degrees inside the classroom at Westowne Elementary School. According to Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommendations, office spaces should be cooled to around 75 to 79 degrees, depending on personal comfort levels and relative humidity. Baltimore County Public Schools' Department of Physical Facilities maintains a policy of cooling rooms to that range from early April until the end of the school year. If the temperature rises above 79 degrees, the building administrator is advised to contact the Department of Physical Facilities Customer Service Desk to report equipment failure. When the building is unoccupied, the temperature is maintained between 80 to 85 degrees.

Westowne is occupied, however, by about 600 sweaty students, faculty, staff and volunteers. But there is no air conditioning equipment at all. So, at 10:30 in the morning, while my children and my neighbors' children were hot and trying to learn, I was sitting at home in my air conditioned dining room on the horns of a dilemma. Should I take my children out of school at 1 p.m., as many parents who are part of Operation Squeaky Wheel, the initiative to get our school cool by next school year, were planning to do? This dedicated group of parents led by China Williams has organized a letter writing campaign, attended school board meetings, contacted local media — basically becoming a bee in the bonnet of anyone who might initiate, let alone speed up, the process that will get air conditioning in our school. My inbox blew up with e-mails from parents determined to turn up the heat, as it were, on school officials by pulling their kids out early in protest of a school whose inside temperatures would surely climb close to 90 by the end of the school day. Should I join the protest in solidarity with these committed parents?

Or should I throw my support, instead, in with those who have to stay in the building — the students whose parents have to work? These are students whose parents don't have easy access to transportation. Then there are the teachers who are dedicated to their classes and will soldier on with the Sisyphean task of teaching in this weather. And the administrators who will have to deal with disruptions to the school day like the kids who will complain, "It's not fair! Why do they get to go home and we have to stay in this hot building?"

Those complaints, as I imagine them, are what made my mind up. I did go take my kids out of that hot box. And it wasn't fair. It wasn't fair all around. Everyone loses in this game. For the sake of fairness, for equity in education, Westowne Elementary and all Baltimore County Public Schools should have air conditioning.

Maura Hill, Catonsville