In freezing city schools, students and teachers struggle through the day, begin to organize

Western High School, one of the city’s schools without heat. / Courtesy Wikipedia

At Western High School, where heat is only partially working this week, “teachers are struggling to teach and students are struggling to learn,” according to senior Maia Washington.

“Right now I am sitting in the library with my friend and we’re bundled up in coats because the heat is not working. There are a select few classes that have fully working heat however for the most part you’d be lucky if you’re able to just wear a jacket in one of your classes,” Washington wrote via Facebook Messenger to the Baltimore Beat Wednesday afternoon. “While I love being in school because it’s like a second home to me, it’s not fair to subject students to these conditions and expect them to still stay focused on their work. We’re busy worrying about being warm and comfortable before anything else.”

Frigid temperatures meant students like Washington all across the city returned from break on Tuesday to chilled classrooms often barely above freezing. On Tuesday and Wednesday, four schools were closed, and many of the schools that remained open operated with no heat or limited heat.

In a statement emailed to the Beat on Tuesday, Baltimore City Schools’ Manager of Public Information Edie House Foster wrote that the school system had been monitoring the school’s heating systems, but the extreme cold caused additional problems.

“Our priority is always to open buildings whenever possible,” she wrote. “We want students to have every possible opportunity for teaching and learning, and we also want to make sure that students can get the services and supports that many families rely on—for example, warm meals and before and after-school care. We have many schools with leaky windows and outdated heating systems that have a hard time keeping up.”

Like so many issues in Baltimore, the problems with school heating are well known and represent another effect of the divestment in city schools. Senator Bill Ferguson took to Twitter to point out that seven schools “requested HVAC/boiler facility repairs for funding and were denied due to ‘fiscal constraints.’” Ferguson also highlighted Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s longstanding claim that “enough money has gone to Baltimore City” (state calculations say that Baltimore schools are inadequately funded by nearly 20 percent).

Cin’Shea Williams, a junior at Western High School, characterized the climate at Western on Tuesday as a combination of denial and desperation. She said that the school’s plan that day was to insist that “warm air [was] coming out of the vents” and encourage teachers to “turn on the fans” in the ventilation system to increase circulation of the limited heat.

“There was no heat on, and it was freezing. It felt a little better on the third floor, but it still was a little chilly,” Williams said. “Once I got to the basement it was horrible, the vents in my classroom were blowing out cold air.”

The Baltimore Brew reported that at Frederick Douglass High School, “flooding from a burst pipe had rendered one classroom [there] unusable,” and an image of the school’s wrestling room tweeted by a Douglass teacher showed extensive flood damage in rooms throughout the school.

Vince Tola, who teaches English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) said Patterson High School also had pipes burst and a number of classrooms nearing freezing temperatures.

“We had rooms in the 30s and 40s. Those teachers combined with other teachers in warmer rooms. By warmer I mean 50s and 60s,” Tola said. “Words such as ‘inhumane’ were being tossed around. . . . Students were low energy, some feelings sick and uncomfortable. As they entered the room, they would feel the air to see how bad it was going to be.”

At Matthew A. Henson Elementary School, teachers and students wore coats and jackets and dealt with power outages in the area, all while trying to learn.

“Teachers and students are doing their best to manage the situation, however it’s simply too much,” said Nicole Chang, Baltimore site director for Huddle Up and co-founder of Our Legacy Inc., both nonprofits that work with public schools. Chang was at Matthew Henson on Wednesday.

“On top of the deplorable conditions they face daily they now have to add battling the elements of the weather as while indoors? Our brown children deserve better than this,” she said. “How are they suppose to hold their pencils and pens to write their ABC’s with thick gloves on?”

Chang mentioned an initiative to gather parents to get out to the Baltimore City Public Schools board meeting on Jan. 9 at 5 p.m. to address the lack of heat: “We plan on organizing as many parents as we can to attend the meeting on Jan. 9 to express our concerns, solutions, feedback.”

There is now a Facebook event tied to the meeting called “Too Cold To Learn,” organized by Brittany Oliver and the advocacy group Not Without Black Women. 

“Black and Brown children attending Baltimore City schools in cold, frigid, freezing weather with little to no heat is a civil and human rights violation. Not Without Black Women is encouraging people to show up to the next Baltimore City Public Schools board meeting because protecting children is a women’s rights issue, especially for Black women in a predominantly Black city,” Oliver said. “Baltimore City has been plagued by institutionalized racism for decades. Two years after the Baltimore Uprising, we must grapple with history and move forward at applying race-equitable frameworks with community leadership to resolve structural inequities that we face today. Our city is in a state of emergency, so let’s treat it as such.”

On Wednesday, the Baltimore Teachers Union hand delivered a letter to city schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises demanding schools close until heating issues are resolved.

“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, gloves. Trying to provide stable learning environment in these extreme conditions is unfair and inhumane, to say the least,” the letter reads in part.

The Beat reached out to BCPS for comment and will update when we receive one.

In a live video posted to the City Schools Facebook page late Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Santelises explained that in keeping schools open she was taking into account the need for safety and food access the schools provide to students who may not find it elsewhere.

“I think it is overly simplistic to say ‘shut down the system’,” she said. “We’ve heard you, we are deploying our resources. . . . If we need to close schools we will.”

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