Lack of AC in county schools affects learning, teachers and parents say

The Baltimore Sun
Lack of AC in county schools affects learning, teachers and parents say

As the academic year wound down at Dulaney High School this week, students said the suffocating heat in classrooms without air conditioning made even the simplest tasks difficult.

It's "terrible," said Amber Budd, a 14-year-old freshman at the Baltimore County school. "It's really difficult because the heat gets to us and teachers expect us to stay awake."

Thirty percent of county schools lack air conditioning. While this is an improvement from last year, when the figure was 40 percent, students and teachers are struggling to do their work.

Friday is the last day of school in the county.

Dulaney, Lansdowne, Patapsco and Woodlawn high schools are targeted for renovations that include new air conditioning. Construction on the four schools, which are some of the county's oldest high schools, will begin in 2017.

Twenty of the 52 county schools without air conditioning were included in the 2015-2016 capital budget project plan, but that doesn't mean the work will be done this year.

Schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson said ensuring safe and comfortable temperatures is a priority.

"Our facilities team works with principals to monitor building temperatures in order to make decisions about ways to provide relief and/or whether or not to close early," he said in a statement. "We will not be satisfied until all our school buildings have A/C and we will continue to work with our local and state government partners to identify funding to make it happen as soon as possible."

A lack of air conditioning has also been a problem in Baltimore City, where temperatures reached nearly 90 degrees inside Patterson Park High before schools let out for the summer earlier this week. About half of Baltimore's schools lack air conditioning.

Neither the city nor the county closed schools this year because of heat. There is no temperature at which schools are closed automatically. The decision is up to administrators.

About half of the city's 180 schools have air conditioning, spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said. She said about 35 more buildings will get it in the next six years.

The other districts in Maryland that have at least one school without air conditioning are Allegany, Cecil, Garrett, Harford and Wicomico counties.

Many students at Reisterstown Elementary in Baltimore County go to a middle and high school that also lack air conditioners.

Joe Packman is the grandfather of a third-grader at Reisterstown.

"She'll never know what air conditioning is — in 12 years of school," he said.

Laura Jeffers, a 10-year-old fourth-grader, said she has had to visit the school nurse because she felt dizzy from the heat.

"It's really humid and sweaty and everyone's complaining," she said.

Teachers at Dulaney say hot classrooms are affecting learning.

Marci Phillips, who teaches biology and forensics, said her classroom's proximity to the school greenhouse draws extra heat and humidity. The temperature in the room reached 85 degrees Tuesday.

"It's awfully hot," she said. "I've had a couple kids fall asleep because of the heat, and they're not trying to be disrespectful."

Alyssa Bailiff, a 17-year-old junior at Dulaney, said she had to leave school early one day last year because she was overheated and dehydrated. She said the school's antiquated pipes turn the drinking water brown.

"I think it's crazy how we have money going into the sports department and nothing goes to that," she said.

Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said she hears from teachers whose classrooms are regularly over 100 degrees.

"Kids can't concentrate," she said. "They put their heads down, especially by the afternoon."

Beytin said there is "no quick fix" for the heat in Baltimore County.

"Some [schools] are so old that they have to be torn down and rebuilt, or they can't even accommodate the electrical part of air conditioning," she said. "The good thing is school is over this week."

Summer school classes in the city and county will be held in air-conditioned rooms. Teachers and students in the county are bracing for August, when schools will open a full two weeks before Labor Day to counteract potential time off for winter weather.

"On both ends we're being squeezed," said Yara Cheikh, a mother of four in Towson.

Cheikh, who will have a son at Dulaney in the fall, applauded former Gov. Martin O'Malley for budgeting $25 million for air conditioning in schools in 2013.

"We need Gov. [Larry] Hogan to make that kind of commitment to Baltimore County once again," she said. "The county executive has come so close to closing the air conditioning gap, but we are in a crisis, and the state must partner with the county to provide the funds."

Teachers are trying to make do.

Maria Hiaasen, who teaches English and journalism at Dulaney, said she has offered her air-conditioned room to colleagues administering finals "so those students don't have to boil."

"We're all trying to pitch in like that," Hiaasen said. She said she allows students in her air-conditioned journalism class to take turns standing in front of the cooling unit to find some relief.

Hiaasen said she and other teachers are recording the temperatures in their classrooms and sharing the information with parents.

"We're collecting data as a school to arm those folks," she said.

Pradeep Dixit, the director of the system's Office of Physical Facilities, said it is not clear when all schools will have air conditioning. He predicted that four to six schools will get air conditioning every year for the next few years.

Dixit said several factors are considered when prioritizing which schools receive funding, including "age of the building, the type of system they have in the building — the ones that are easier to incorporate have higher priority — and we try to spread it out throughout the county."

Rae Ann Hetrick, the mother of a fifth-grader at Reisterstown Elementary, said parents have voiced their concerns to school board members but "feel powerless."

"We all understand that Reisterstown shouldn't be more of a priority than other schools, but it should be fair and transparent," she said.

Her daughter Alaina, 11, said the heat causes her legs to stick to her chair.

"I start sweating when I'm just sitting," she said.

Phillips said her students are frustrated.

"It's hard for them when they see the office is air-conditioned and the main headquarters is air-conditioned, but we don't get it," she said. "There's a message that, 'My comfort doesn't matter as much.'"

cjedra@baltsun.com

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