In the city that’s home to some of Maryland’s oldest school buildings, even the simplest attempts to improve classroom conditions aren’t as simple as they seem.
It’s become a September tradition in Baltimore: Sweltering classrooms lead to complaints from students, parents and politicians about the lack of air-conditioning in city schools.
This summer, the Baltimore Teachers Union is trying to get ahead of the problem by raising money and collecting donated fans for classrooms where temperatures sometimes exceed 100-degrees.
But plugging in too many of those fans, administrators say, could strain the aging electrical systems in many of the city’s schools to the breaking point.
“Our biggest concern is the electrical load," said Lynette Washington, the schools’ chief operations officer. “We don’t have the infrastructure for a number of things to be plugged in.”
It’s not the first time people have sought donations for do-it-yourself fixes to structural issues in Baltimore school buildings. In the winter of 2017 — after photos went viral showing students wearing coats and mittens in frigid classrooms — a Coppin State University student started a GoFundMe page that quickly raised more than $80,000 to purchase heaters and other resources for city school kids.
But both then and now, these fundraisers sparked some concern at district headquarters about the impact such devices could have on electrical systems.
BTU president Diamonté Brown said it’s up to the union to ensure teachers and students are able to focus on the schoolwork, rather than the stifling conditions advocates believe would never be tolerated in wealthier school systems.
“We know that the Baltimore City public school system will not be adequately equipped to handle the high temperatures that our students and teachers will be subjected to while in our classrooms,” Brown said. “What we decided to do is at least give teachers and students and [paraprofessionals] some relief.”
Washington said she hasn’t been contacted by BTU representatives about their Fan Drive, but she hopes to flag the potential issue with them. It’s possible, she said, that certain schools’ electrical systems could go down, depending on the age of the building, the number of fans plugged in and the kinds of devices that are donated.
The union hopes to hand out 500 fans, according to a spokeswoman.
Asked about the district’s concerns, Brown pushed back: “If you’re so concerned about the electricity being overloaded, then fix it," she said. “That’s not for us to figure out.”
The union’s role, she said, is to ensure students and teachers are in adequate learning environments.
The district is about halfway through a five-year plan to address climate control problems in its buildings. Roughly 50 schools still lack air-conditioning, according to facilities officials. Seven schools were outfitted with cooling units over the summer, they said, with seven more in the construction phase.
They’ve also installed sensors that alert facilities staff if temperatures spike in certain classrooms, and have crafted an inclement weather policy dictating when students should be dismissed early because of cooling problems.
Another five schools will open this year after being rebuilt or renovated under the 21st Century Schools initiative, a massive overhaul of school infrastructure that is bringing functional HVAC systems, drinkable water and other necessities to about two dozen city buildings.
The lack of air-conditioning tends to stir up heated debate in Annapolis.
Republican Gov. Larry Hogan demanded in 2016 that both Baltimore City and Baltimore County quickly develop plans to install air-conditioning across all schools — or else the state would withhold millions of dollars of sorely-needed construction funding. The two districts complied, though Baltimore Schools CEO Sonja Santelises warned at the time the system would be "deferring critical projects, like fire safety and roofs, in order to implement the AC plan.”
The district has a roughly $3 billion maintenance backlog that officials attribute to decades of underfunding and a byproduct of having the oldest education infrastructure in the state.
As a teacher, Brown said she was upfront with her students about why it was so hot in her classroom. “We have a lack of resources for our district,” she told them.
The conditions made it hard for her to teach and for her students to learn. Brown set up a “fan corner” using equipment she brought from home to offer some temporary relief.
But teachers shouldn’t have to use their paychecks to make their classroom climate bearable, she said.
According to a survey released in 2018 by the National Center for Education Statistics, 94 percent of teachers use their own money for classroom supplies. On average, the survey found, a teacher will spend about $480 — but teachers in high-need areas like Baltimore often spend more.
Brittany Johnstone, a school psychologist and member of the BTU board, called the fan donations “a relief.”
“Many of us end up buying so much for our classrooms and officers,” she said. “This is one less thing we’ll have to purchase.”