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Education

Some Baltimore City schools close early amid high temperatures and malfunctioning air conditioners

Michelle Braxton stepped into Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School on Tuesday to collect her asthmatic 4-year-old for early dismissal due to the heat and felt the “extremely hot and stuffy” air envelop her.

Baltimore City public schools announced early dismissal Tuesday for students at Franklin Square and about 30 other schools because of air conditioning malfunctions or lack of cooling altogether. Temperatures reached up to 93 degrees Tuesday afternoon in Baltimore.

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In the six years Braxton has volunteered with the school, she said, there have been multiple early dismissals due to heat conditions — and she suspects there will be many more as long as the issues remain unfixed.

“If the kids have to come to school, they should be comfortable so they can get the learning they need and be successful,” Braxton said.

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Heat-related school closures are a perennial problem for city schools, which are among the oldest in Maryland.

Hot classrooms are associated with poor academic performance, according to a 2018 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. The National Education Association reported that Black and Hispanic students are more likely to attend schools that lack air conditioning.

Baltimore City schools’ air conditioning issues came to a head in spring 2016 when state lawmakers blocked public schools from spending tax money on portable air conditioning units. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and Democrat Comptroller Peter Franchot voted a month later to withhold $5 million in funding from Baltimore City schools unless officials there installed air conditioning in all classrooms by the 2016-17 school year.

The Baltimore City school system, which educates an estimated 77,000 students every year, has made significant strides since then to reduce the list of schools that lack air conditioning — down from 75 schools in 2018 to about 18 this year with a plan to install air conditioning in 12 of the schools by the summer of 2023. The remaining six schools are slated for new construction or major renovation projects, which will include air conditioning.

An additional 12 school buildings, two of which are not owned by the school system, closed Tuesday because the air conditioning systems were under repair. Schools dismiss students early when repairs are expected to take more than two hours.

Garrett Heights Elementary/Middle sent students home early Tuesday due to heat, despite recently installing a new HVAC system. Rachel Simmonsen, whose daughter was among those dismissed, felt frustrated that the issue is ongoing even after considerable investment to resolve the problem.

“I thought we were lucky to be one of the schools with a new HVAC system, but whenever we have an extremely hot day, we’re having an early dismissal,” Simmonsen said. “So I’m wondering, you know, why?”

In April, the school system updated its air conditioning plan to say it would not meet a self-imposed goal for completing installations by the 2022-2023 school year due to rising costs and available funding.

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But representatives for Baltimore City schools said Tuesday those projects are now funded and being planned, scheduled or in the process of being completed. Spokesman André Riley did not respond to questions about what prompted the improved outlook.

School air conditioning installations can be slow, expensive and involve site-specific hurdles. The school system is primarily planning to install vertical package units in about 1,356 classrooms at $20,000 a piece, which would provide both heating and cooling and have a longer lifespan than window units.

City school students lose more days of instruction due to lack of heating than lack of cooling, the system’s air conditioning plan noted.

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Both vertical package and window units also require electrical upgrades, which cost an additional $20,000 to $30,000 per classroom. School leaders estimate the projects will cost between $54 million to $67 million. All projects are expected to be funded by a variety of state and federal sources.

Linnette Washington, the school system’s chief operations officer, said Tuesday that installation and construction for a single school can take up to two years including the design, review and procurement process. And most schools are occupied, meaning construction is limited to before and after classes.

“People say ‘We gave you money,’ but it’s not possible to complete the [installation] process in just three months,” Washington said.

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Public schools in Baltimore County have struggled, too, with overwhelming capital improvement needs and not enough funding. County schools also saw $10 million withheld by the state in 2016 because 48 of its 175 public school buildings lacked air conditioning.

Leaders now say that all county schools have some form of air conditioning. However, certain areas within county school buildings still are not air-conditioned.

Air conditioning is one of several capital improvement concerns facing Baltimore City public schools. The updated installation plan noted Tuesday that the system “does not have sufficient funds to address these needs or even to perform necessary basic and preventative maintenance with the frequency recommended under industry standards, including to critical mechanical, plumbing, electrical and security systems.”

Document: Baltimore City Public Schools’ Air Conditioning Plan: Update May 31, 2022


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