National News

Baltimore closes public schools after students sat in cold classrooms

Posted January 3, 2018 11:37 p.m. EST
Updated January 4, 2018 10:28 a.m. EST

— As temperatures plunged along the East Coast, photos emerged this week of Baltimore students wearing coats, hats and gloves inside frigid classrooms -- igniting criticism from parents and others who wondered why those classes weren't canceled.

Photos spreading virally online showed children bundled up in Baltimore schools where heating systems weren't keeping up with the weather. The school system closed four schools and dismissed students early at two others Wednesday, and closed all schools Thursday as low temperatures persisted citywide.

Thursday's systemwide closures came only after parents and a teachers' union excoriated the school system for Wednesday's heating issues.

"It's unbearable, it's cold," Chasity Spears, a mother, told CNN affiliate WJZ on Wednesday. "There's icicles in the classroom."

Here's what happened Wednesday:

-- Outdoor temperatures were typically winterlike (single digits in the morning; upper 20s and lower 30s later). That continued a two-week run of chilly air, putting an extra strain on the schools' heating systems, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises said in a Facebook Live video.

-- Heating issues emerged as parts of boilers broke and pipes burst in some schools, she said, adding that drafts from leaky windows and generally "old conditions of our buildings" contributed.

-- About 60 schools -- about one-third of the school system -- reported heating issues during the school day. Maintenance teams resolved many of the issues during the day, Santelises said.

"Nobody in this city, including me, wants folks sitting around in coats and mittens all day," Santelises said.

But for a time, some students took to wearing extra layers Wednesday.

A teacher who didn't want to be named told WJZ that his colleagues were bringing space heaters to classrooms and passing around caulk trying to block out the cold air.

One photo posted on social media showed 62 degrees Fahrenheit inside a classroom.

"If you go out on the hallway, you could see your breath," one student told WJZ on Wednesday.

The Baltimore Teachers Union urged the city to close all its schools for the rest of the week until the "facilities crew has had time to properly assess and fix the heating issues within the affected schools."

"Our educators have been forced to endure teaching in classrooms with dangerously low temperatures, instructing students who have been forced to try to learn bundled up in coats, hats and gloves," wrote union president Marietta English in a letter to Santelises.

"Your expectation that our members and the children that they teach endure bursting boilers, drafty windows, frigid temperatures in classrooms, and risk getting sick in these 'less than ideal' conditions, is utterly ridiculous," she wrote to the school CEO.

In her Facebook Live steam Wednesday -- the day before the system closed all schools -- Santelises said shutting classes systemwide isn't an easy decision -- in part because many students get their meals at schools.

And if schools shut, it's not a given that students will have supervision at home, she said.

"We are balancing the need for young people to connect to meals, the need to connect with caring adults and safe spaces, as well as the fact that we want young people learning," she said.

The challenge, she said, is that many of the school buildings are very old, and pipes burst and boilers break in the cold weather. She said there is a "history of underfunding of buildings in Baltimore city" compared to other districts.

CNN has reached out to Baltimore City Public Schools for further comment, as well as to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and Maryland Governor Lawrence J. Hogan, Jr.

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