At noon on Monday, mere hours into the first day of fully in-person school in Baltimore City since the start of the pandemic, Johnston Elementary School students were already saying goodbye to classmates and being shuffled home by parents and family members due to extremely hot temperatures and the school’s lack of air conditioning.
Johnston Square Elementary was one of 24 schools in Baltimore that cut the first day of fully in-person school short due to a lack of central air, or repairs being done to the system.
School officials declared Sunday that schools without proper air conditioning will have early dismissals or close on “extremely hot days.” Nearly 13% of schools in Baltimore don’t have air conditioning, according to officials.
“Not only did they have a whole summer to install air conditioning, they had a year-and-a-half,” Tonya Bond said while waiting in line to pick her kids up from school at Johnston Square.
Bond said she had to leave her shift as a warehouse coordinator early to pick up her children Respect, a second grader, and Conscience, a third grader, from school.
While both her kids were excited for their first day, Bond said she worries about the lack of air conditioning in their school as well as the unknowns that come with the persisting COVID pandemic.
“They wanted to jump out the door,” Bond said. “I would rather them be home.”
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Nyisha Barnes said that while she isn’t worried about her daughter BlueDestiny getting COVID, she wishes the school would have continued to offer online learning to provide options for families hesitant about sending their kids back to a school without air conditioning amid the pandemic.
“I’m pleased with the school in terms of academic success but they should have been proactive with regards to air conditioning or online learning,” Barnes said.
Timonia Smith, who was pacing outside the school waiting to pick up her first grade daughter Jaycee, said the return to school has felt disorganized and she’s anxious about sending her daughter to school in a building she has never set foot in with teachers she has never met.
“I feel like I am sending my child into the unknown,” Smith said. “I’m just hoping when she comes back out, she has her mask on.”
School system leaders “understand the concerns and frustrations of families” related to air conditioning, officials said in a statement. When city schools CEO Sonja Santelises stepped into her role as head of the system, there were 76 schools that lacked air conditioning.
School officials allow early dismissal when the temperature in a majority of classrooms reaches 85 degrees or higher, and students cannot be relocated to cooler areas, according to the statement.
Stiflingly hot classrooms are a perennial problem in Baltimore, which has some of the state’s oldest school buildings. Officials have made strides to improve the situation — reducing the number of schools without AC from 75 in 2018.