Baltimore students collectively have missed nearly 1.5 million hours of class time over the past five years — equal to about 221,000 school days — when schools close because their buildings are too cold or hot, a pipe has broken or an electrical problem has developed, according to a team of Johns Hopkins University researchers.
Most of those closings have happened in the past couple of years after the school system put in more stringent policies to ensure that students were not learning in buildings that were too cool or too warm. During the winter of 2018, dozens of schools were closed during a cold snap when school heating systems failed. And schools have closed more frequently in the past year when temperatures in classrooms have risen and the school system decided to release students due to lack of air conditioning.
The Hopkins researchers said the project was an attempt to quantify the effect of poor facilities on students.
“We think that this is a core issue of equity in the city. Kids should be able to go to school in a healthy environment,” said Dr. Josh Sharfstein, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and one of the authors. “Obviously, there is an urgent need for improvement for the environment in many city schools.”
The report, released Tuesday, used data from the city schools and state sources to paint a detailed portrait of the issues at each school, and what researchers say is the result of the failure to provide sufficient funding.
For instance, the city government has given far less each year for school facilities than other neighboring counties. Baltimore County budgeted more than $200 million last year for its school buildings, while the city government put in about $11 million. Under a special initiative, Baltimore has built 14 new schools to replace dilapidated ones in the past five years, but it isn’t nearly fast enough to keep up with the backlog of needs at its crumbling buildings.
The state rates only 17 percent of the city’s schools as in good or excellent condition, compared with more than 90 percent in Howard County and more than 60 percent in Baltimore County.
There isn’t enough money to maintain city school buildings, so the result is that only the very most pressing problems are addressed each year, said Alison Perkins-Cohen, Baltimore City schools chief of staff.
Researchers found 80% of closures are due to heating and cooling problems. A review of maintenance requests found 29 schools have HVAC systems with parts that more than 20 years past their replacement date.
Perkins-Cohen said that just to bring the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Western High School complex on Falls Road at Cold Spring Lane up to date with new HVAC, windows and other systems would cost $75 million, more than double the amount of money the city schools receive from the state in one year.
A school system can receive too little funding for capital projects for a few years without it hurting the environment inside schools, Perkins-Cohen said. But when maintenance is delayed for generations of students, she said, the schools aren’t suitable for learning on a regular basis.
The city schools developed a plan to build dozens of new schools over five years in an attempt to take care of some of the many problems that have been documented for the past decade, including extensive reports by the ACLU of Maryland. Fourteen of the schools have opened already, and 14 more are being built in the next several years.
“This is about delivering on the constitutional rights of students in Baltimore City, which have been blatantly ignored for decades," said Frank Patinella, an education advocate at the ACLU. "The state now has an opportunity to change direction on education policies to ensure that all students in Baltimore City, as well as others who live in districts with low wealth, have access to safe and modern school buildings.”
The city schools could get some boost in funding if the Maryland General Assembly approves the Built to Learn Act this session. The bill would give schools an additional $2.2 billion over five years for school construction.