Cold Baltimore Classrooms Are ‘Inhumane,’ Teachers Union Says
Posted January 4, 2018 7:10 p.m. EST
Teachers in Baltimore are calling for city schools to be closed until heating problems are resolved, saying many students have been forced to attend classes bundled up in coats, hats and gloves during the recent frigid weather.
The Baltimore Teachers Union sent a letter Wednesday to Sonja Brookins Santelises, the chief executive officer of Baltimore City Public Schools, saying that this week students and teachers have endured dangerously low temperatures in buildings that are struggling to operate with bursting boilers and drafty windows.
“Trying to provide a stable learning environment in these extreme conditions is unfair and inhumane, to say the least,” said Marietta English, the president of the union, in the letter, which was published in The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday.
That day, four schools were closed and three released their students early because of the heating issues and cold in their buildings. As blizzard conditions raged along the East Coast on Thursday, the closings extended to all Baltimore city schools, as well as those in other major cities including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.
In Baltimore on Thursday, temperatures were in the low 20s and dipping as low as 9 degrees Fahrenheit amid high winds and snow showers. Colder weather was forecast for Friday, when another decision about closings would be made.
“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,” English wrote.
In a Facebook Live presentation published after she received the union’s letter, Santelises said that as some schools are fixed, others might encounter problems elsewhere in the district, making a request to shut down all the schools an “overly simplistic” measure.
“I don’t knee-jerk close anything down just because I have one perspective,” she said.
She said that other factors went into the decision, such as considering the impact on students’ access to hot school meals and adult supervision while parents work, she added.
She said the authorities “don’t take the closing of schools lightly.”
But, she added: “Nobody in this city, including me, wants folks sitting around in coats and mittens all day for the entire week.”
About 60 schools have been affected over the winter break and this week by heating problems, representing about one-third of the schools in the system, Santelises said.
Alison Perkins-Cohen, the chief of staff of Baltimore City Public Schools, said in a letter to families, students and staff members Tuesday that workers had visited the buildings over the winter break to try to ensure they were ready.
Principals are combining classes if one room is colder than another, and Perkins-Cohen said school uniform rules had been lifted so students can choose warm outfits.
Maintenance workers have been sent to schools as the district gets complaints about them. Santelises said as some fixes are made at some schools, problems arise at others as workers try to keep ahead of the problems.
“It is a juggle, and I don’t think we get it perfect every time,” she added.
On Thursday, city recreation centers were open to students from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and food banks were providing meals and snacks, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh said in a statement.
Describing herself as “deeply distressed by the substandard conditions,” she said the city has allocated $17 million for maintenance in the current school year and that amount will increase to $19 million next year.
On Twitter, parents shared stories of their children’s struggles and others started fundraisers for heaters and coats.
As Santelises spoke on Facebook Live, parents and educators weighed in through the comments section, asking where the funding has gone for facilities that primarily affect children of color, and why their children should shiver in cold classrooms while adults figure it all out.
Ayanna Barmore, 31, one of the parents, said in a telephone interview Thursday that her sons, who are in fourth grade and kindergarten, have been wearing full winter gear indoors and were marched back and forth between cold classrooms and a common area that had heat to warm up periodically.
“They said half of the school was without heat,” she said. “I don’t understand why they do not have a plan to fix it.”