How are Baltimore schools preparing for winter after last year's heating disaster?

The viral photo showed elementary school students huddled together on the classroom floor, their fluffy coats zipped up and hoods pulled over their faces. Inside temperatures dipped into the low 40s as last year’s harsh winter exposed longstanding infrastructure problems in Baltimore’s aging school buildings.

Parents decried conditions that left their children shivering at school. Politicians lambasted district leadership. The school system put facilities workers into overdrive.

One year later, school system officials are working to ensure the heating crisis doesn’t repeat itself.

The facilities department has put renewed emphasis on preventive maintenance this school year, hoping to catch small problems before they turn into burst pipes and broken boilers. More time and resources are devoted to monitoring buildings. And millions have been spent to install temperature sensors that will sound an alarm for district officials should classrooms get too cold.

“We’re going into this winter far better prepared,” said schools CEO Sonja Santelises. “But that doesn’t eradicate the capital needs we have.”

Santelises said last year’s highly publicized disaster was the manifestation of decades of underinvestment in Baltimore schools, which are among the oldest in the state. The district has a $3 billion maintenance backlog, and system officials say they lack the budget to tackle it.

Despite the continued challenges, Lynette Washington, the district’s interim chief operations officer, said parents can expect this winter to go more smoothly.

“This winter will be different,” she said. “My confidence is in the fact that we have better oversight to be able to make determinations, assess and respond more quickly to address a situation.

“But they’re still old systems. It’s still unpredictable.”

Washington said the district has brought in new technology that will identify problems faster and alert families sooner about the status of their child’s school.

The school board recently approved spending $2.7 million on a “building automation system” — a network of temperature sensors placed in buildings and HVAC systems that will alert operations staff should temperatures plummet in a certain school or classroom. (Come spring, the same system will alert officials to classrooms that are intolerably hot.)

Last winter, the district relied on a too-small team of staff to conduct visual checks of buildings, looking for broken systems that might result in a frigid classroom.

“We had to rely on individuals, physical bodies, going in and assessing buildings,” Washington said.

That was difficult, she said, with a ratio of one engineer to every 18 school buildings.

A new staffing structure reduces that ratio to 1 to 4. This allows more time for someone to visit and check each building, with the sensors acting as another set of eyes.

Should the temperature in a building drop at any time, an alert will be sent to the district’s maintenance team.

“Temperature issues can change drastically,” Washington said. “If a pipe bursts on a Saturday morning, no one would know because no one is there.”

Now, she said, in that situation temperature sensors would alert the district long before school starts on Monday, meaning the problem could be addressed before students show up.

Washington estimated that close to 65 buildings have been brought online. The district plans to have 115 schools outfitted with temperature sensors by mid-December, prioritizing buildings that had the most severe infrastructure challenges in the past. By next summer, all of the system’s roughly 160 school buildings will have the sensors installed.

If the heating issues prove too severe, and a school has to close, a new web page will update families on a building’s status in real time. The district plans to roll out the Facilities Condition Dashboard by mid-December; the searchable database will show whether a school is open or closed. The platform will also allow people to report problems in their buildings.

Parents criticized the district last year for initially failing to close cold schools, or waiting until the last minute to determine that a school had to dismiss early.

The district aims to keep schools at around 75 degrees, Washington said. Inside temperatures below 60 degrees can lead to a school’s closing or dismissing early.

The school system’s policy for closing schools in the winter is available at baltimorecityschools.org/Page/33257.

“Communication is a top priority,” Washington said. “We want to be very clear about how decisions are made for when we do or don’t close schools.”

trichman@baltsun.com

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