The AFT is standing in solidarity with members and allies of the Baltimore Teachers Union, who during this week of frigid weather called on the city to close schools in the face of chronic heating problems that plunged indoor temperatures into the 30s and 40s.
A holiday week during which schools' boilers were turned down, followed by an arctic blast this week, set the stage for freezing temperatures indoors. On Monday, Baltimore City determined it would be ok to open schools. On Tuesday, school employees across the city reported that "the children had to be bundled up head to toe in coats and jackets" in their classrooms. That afternoon, BTU President Marietta English, who is an AFT vice president, asked the school superintendent to delay opening two hours on Wednesday so that the buildings could warm up. However, all but four schools opened Wednesday at the regular time. On Friday, following the huge East Coast snow storm, schools were closed.
The result? Children too cold to function, much less learn.
"Trying to provide a stable learning environment in these extreme conditions is unfair and inhumane, to say the least," English wrote in a letter hand-delivered to district CEO Sonja Santelises. "I implore that you close schools in the district until your facilities crew has had time to properly assess and fix the heating issues."
The city closed four schools all day Wednesday and dismissed students early from two more schools with heating problems. However, the system received complaints from about 60 schools, or a third of its schools.
The AFT stands with the BTU in defending students and demanding that the district close schools until crews can properly assess and fix the heating problems at every school in the city. AFT President Randi Weingarten points out that our union's top priority is ensuring safe and productive learning conditions.
"Kids can't learn and teachers can't teach in freezing classrooms and in schools with no heat, frozen pipes and frigid winds coming in through drafty windows," Weingarten says. "These conditions are unsafe, unbearable and unacceptable for students, educators and school employees."
Former NFL player turned classroom mentor Aaron Maybin (pictured at left) appeared in a video with students on Wednesday, discussing what it’s like to try to learn in these conditions. The video quickly went viral and has received national attention for the disparities between schools for privileged kids and schools for everyone else.
"How would your kids concentrate if you sent them to school in a refrigerator for eight hours? With failing lighting. Two classes in one room," Maybin told the Baltimore Brew. "We tried our best as educators. They tried their best as scholars. But they are dealing with a lot already. And now they are supposed to learn in the dark and in the cold?”
In addition to long-standing problems with the schools' heating equipment, decaying insulation and old pipes, the buildings' windows are drafty and in disrepair, observes English. She describes school staff trying to caulk windows themselves. "It's sustained cold," she says. "You walk in a popsicle and stay a popsicle."
[Annette Licitra/Baltimore Brew photos]