Baltimore teachers call on city to close all schools amid heating issues

The Baltimore Teachers Union is urging the city to shut down all schools until officials can get a handle on heating problems that already closed some buildings and left children shivering in others.

“I implore that you close schools in the District until your facilities crew has had time to properly assess and fix the heating issues within the affected schools in Baltimore City,” Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English wrote in a letter that was hand-delivered Wednesday to the school system’s CEO, Sonja Santelises.

“This is the best way to ensure the safety of our members and our children,” English wrote.

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The city school system closed four schools all day Wednesday and dismissed students early from Frederick Douglass High School and Cecil Elementary School, which also had heating problems.

The four that were closed all day were Calverton Elementary/Middle School, Elementary/Middle Alternative Program, KIPP Harmony Academy and Lakeland Elementary/Middle School.

But parents, teachers and students said heating and piping troubles were far more widespread.

Santelises said the district responded to complaints at about 60 schools Wednesday — roughly one-third of the district’s buildings. But she said she doesn’t make “knee-jerk” decisions to close buildings en masse, noting that in addition to instructional time, many families rely on the free meals and after-school care schools provide.

“Our young people are, in many cases, safest at school,” Santelises said during a live-streamed address.

English, though, said the district shouldn't expect teachers to work in buildings with “bursting boilers, drafty windows, frigid temperatures in classrooms.”

Baltimore is home to some of the state’s oldest school infrastructure, and Santelises said “too many of our buildings have outdated heating systems, poor insulation, and aging pipes as a result of years of inadequate funding for maintenance and facilities improvements.”

She said the district will continue to close schools when the conditions are deemed unsafe or unhealthy. She said it’s possible a number of schools would not open Thursday.

On Tuesday — the first day back from the winter holiday break — Woodhome Elementary/Middle, Elementary/Middle Alternative Program and Frederick Elementary either closed or dismissed early due to water problems, according to district officials. Lakeland Elementary/Middle released students at 12:45 p.m. because of school-wide issues with the heating system.

Schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said in a statement that over the winter break, facilities staff checked on heating systems, plumbing and electricity.

“Numerous problems were identified and resolved,” she said. “Unfortunately, with the extreme temperatures, new problems can emerge quickly.”

At Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, which remained open all day, senior Tyquira Townsend said it was hard to focus in “a building that doesn’t feel like it has heat.”

“I wish [district officials] could come feel how it is inside our building,” Townsend said. “It’s too cold. How are you supposed to study for midterms when you’re shaking?”

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Complaints about a lack of heat in schools became a political issue Wednesday.

At the Board of Public Works meeting in Annapolis, Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp suggested the focus over the past year from Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot on air conditioning in schools may have bumped heating system repairs.

Kopp, a Democrat, said all problems in school facilities need to be addressed “and not just focus on one thing and inadvertently, unintendedly, cause a problem in another area.”

Hogan replied the state has put “billions of dollars” into the city schools budget and into the 21st Century Schools program that will build dozens of new city schools to replacing aging ones.

“We’re all for making all of the improvements to all of the schools and building new schools, which is why we record funded them,” said Hogan, a Republican. “We don’t think kids should be sweating to death in un-air-conditioned schools or freezing to death.”

Hogan previously led the Board of Public Works in temporarily withholding millions of school construction money from Baltimore City and Baltimore County until the school districts came up with plans for installing air conditioning. When the money was restored last year, Santelises warned other maintenance projects might have to be deferred to comply with the directive on air conditioning.

In the city’s most recent request for state money for construction projects, several heating and window replacements were put at the bottom of the priority list and weren’t funded.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the fact that there’s not enough money for both heating projects and air conditioning projects is a symptom of the problems in the state’s school funding programs.

“We shouldn’t be debating whether or not classrooms have air conditioning or heat. That should be a basic assumption,” he said. “The fact that it’s not is a sin for all of us.”

City lawmakers acknowledged that the state is contributing $20 million per year to help pay for the long-term 21st Century Schools program, but they said the city also needs sufficient money each year to maintain the aging schools that the city still has.

“Baltimore has a lot of needs, not just boilers, not just air conditioning,” said Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat who chairs the city’s delegation to Annapolis. “Lavatories, water systems, roofs, broken windows.”

Del. Maggie McIntosh, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the backlog of school repairs is an ongoing issue.

“We are the wealthiest state in the country,” the Baltimore Democrat said, “and to think there’s any child right now, today, in this state in a school without heat is wrong and we need to fix it. Now.”

Two of the Democrats hoping to unseat Hogan from the Governor’s Mansion used the school heating issue to attack the governor. State Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat running for governor, called the situation a “crisis” and criticized Hogan for prioritizing air conditioning. Another candidate, former NAACP President Ben Jealous, suggested Hogan should hold a cabinet meeting in one of the schools with broken heating.

Anaija Bishop, a 16-year-old freshman at Frederick Douglass High School, spent part of the school day Wednesday with a purple fleece blanket wrapped around her puffy coat. It was freezing cold inside her school, she said.

The school dismissed at 1 p.m. due to pipe and water issues, but Bishop said the first half of the day was wasted. It was impossible to learn in such conditions, she said.

"The district needs to think about how cold we are and how sick we can get," she said.

It was the second day students at Douglass bundled up inside their classrooms.

Some students, parents and teachers across the city said they felt their only recourse was to take to social media. Some tweeted photos of children huddled in classrooms wearing thick winter coats. Others posted images of thermometers showing temperatures in the 30s and 40s inside open city school buildings.

Margot Harris, the ESOL department chair at Achievement Academy, said students and teachers alike kept coats, hats and scarves on throughout the school day Wednesday. A similar scene played out at Patterson High School, where Jim Ritter teaches.

Ritter credited the district with making some improvements. His classroom was at 37 degrees Tuesday morning, but rose to the mid-50s the next day. He understands the call from some parents and others to close schools, but “at the time, whenever school is closed I think of how many students in Baltimore city miss out on free lunches and how many parents miss out on child care.”

In Baltimore County, schools reported no cold weather-related problems, and all schools were operating normally on Wednesday with the exception of Overlea High School. After a water main break in the neighborhood, city public works workers had shut off water to the school. Afternoon and evening activities had been canceled. City public works officials said they couldn’t tell whether the break was related to the cold or whether it would be fixed in time for school to open Thursday morning.

Meanwhile, more weather-related issues could be coming. Baltimore Health Commissioner Dr. Leana S. Wen has declared a “code blue” through the end of the week, meaning the city faces dangerously cold weather.

A storm off the Atlantic Coast was forecast to bring snow to the region Wednesday night into Thursday. The Interstate 95 corridor through Baltimore was forecast to be at the edge of the precipitation, but the amount of snow accumulation will depend on how closely the storm hugs the coast. The National Weather Service is calling for 1 to 2 inches along and east of I-95, and a dusting to an inch to the west, as far as Frederick.

The lower Eastern Shore could get 6 to 8 inches of snow. Wicomico, Worcester, Dorchester and Somerset counties are under a winter storm warning. About 2 to 4 inches are expected in St. Mary’s, Calvert, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Talbot and Caroline counties, where winter weather advisories are in effect.

Baltimore Sun reporters Michael Dresser, Scott Dance and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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