Too Hot to Stay in the Classroom

Carmelle Henson picks up son Rashid Brown Jr., 7, from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Southeast after early dismissal.
Carmelle Henson picks up son Rashid Brown Jr., 7, from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Southeast after early dismissal. (Photos By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 15, 2005

D.C. School Superintendent Clifford B. Janey ordered all the city's public schools to close early yesterday after some principals reported classroom temperatures approaching 100 degrees, and officials said the heat might force another early dismissal of classes today.

Janey's decision to release students at 12:30 p.m. focused attention on one of the school system's long-standing problems: aging infrastructure that causes many buildings to be too cold in the winter and too warm in the spring. About 100 of the system's 145 schools -- many of them built in the World War II era -- have no central air conditioning, and 20 have faulty air conditioning systems and windows that cannot open, officials said.

There were no heat-related closings yesterday in other Washington area school systems. Baltimore public schools, however, closed 2 1/2 hours early.

D.C. school officials said Janey ordered an early shutdown of all schools, including those with working air conditioning, to minimize disruption in families with children at more than one school.

But several parents who had to interrupt work to pick up their children or scramble for babysitters questioned the decision.

"It's an absurdity. This is the kind of thing that gives the school system a bad name," Wendy Jacobson said as she arrived to pick up her first-grade son at Oyster Elementary School in Northwest, a four-year-old building that is fully air conditioned.

Philip Mueller came to Oyster to pick up his two children from their first-grade and pre-kindergarten classes. "Half of the people here probably don't have air conditioning at home half as good as it is here," he complained. "They'll bake at home."

School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said one reason for the system-wide closing was that the school facilities department could not provide an accurate list of which buildings had functioning air conditioning. Two school administrators denied that, saying that such information was available.

Officials said that students should report to school at the usual time this morning and that Janey will determine by 10 a.m. whether to dismiss classes early again. The weather forecast for today offered no relief, with a high to match yesterday's 92 degrees.

"There will be a combination of things going into the assessment: the weather and air conditioners -- are they working?" said Peter G. Parham, Janey's chief of staff.

Parham said principals were issued new guidelines Monday that called for them to contact the facilities department if temperatures in their buildings reached 90 degrees. In such situations, an inspector is sent to the school to determine whether the air conditioning system is functioning and, if not, whether fans can bring down the temperatures to an acceptable level, he said. Parham said any principal who is not satisfied can request an early dismissal.

Recreation centers were opened early to accommodate students who had nowhere to go yesterday.

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