More than a dozen teachers, complaining that they were sick from heat and exhaustion, yesterday walked out of Terrell Elementary School in Southeast Washington, where the windows are permanently sealed and the air conditioning system has been broken all spring.
About a dozen students left the school as well, saying that their teachers had abandoned them inside sweltering classrooms with nothing to do.
Temperatures inside some classrooms have climbed as high as 98 degrees in recent weeks, several teachers and students at Terrell said. Many of the teachers who remained on the job yesterday took their classes outside to shaded areas of an adjacent playing field.
After what students and teachers described as about half the school's 36 teachers had left, administrators sent about two dozen large fans to the school, located at Wheeler Road and Savannah Street SE.
Andrew Jenkins, deputy superintendent of schools, said four teachers requested "emergency sick leave" before leaving. He promised teachers and students that they would be moved to empty classrooms at nearby schools today if necessary.
Andrew Weeks, acting director of the school system's division of buildings and grounds, said the broken air conditioner was reported to him in March, when it was discovered that oil and water had gotten into the system. He said it has remained broken because subordinates did not know how to process the paperwork needed to hire a contractor to repair the system.
"The contract process got fouled up. In other words, the subordinates didn't know how to obtain emergency service," he said.
Weeks said the Terrell situation is not unique. The air conditioners have been broken for several months at Fort Lincoln and Langdon elementary schools, both located in Northeast, he said.
William Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union, said he believes the blame lies with "whoever had the bright idea to build schools with no windows . . . . It's ridiculous. As soon as the air conditioning goes out, there is no way you can bring relief to the occupants of the building."
Weeks said sealed windows, like the ones at Terrell, which was built in 1977, are "a good concept, as long as you have a good air conditioner. One of the biggest problems is that the city decided to put these experimental air conditioning systems in the schools that have no track records. In several schools, we have air conditioners that were manufactured by companies that now no longer exist. We can't find parts for them when they break down."
Jenkins said he believes the heat has been tolerable at Terrell. "I don't think what teachers and students have suffered . . . has had an impact on the instructional program."
Several teachers disagreed. "Obviously, instruction can't take place when we have all this heat and the children are outside and most of teachers are not here," said one teacher who remained at work. "We can't bring the chalkboards and other school supplies out here, you know."