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‘Kids are freezing’: Amid bitter cold, Baltimore schools, students struggle

Aaron Maybin posted a video to social media earlier this week. In the clip, he sits in front of a group of young children, bundled up in a coat.

"What's the day been like for you guys today?" Maybin asked.

"Cold!" the kids responded.

Maybin, a former NFL player, is a teacher at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School in Baltimore, where some schools have struggled to cope with the frigid weather.

Earlier in the week, some students returned from their winter holiday break to chilled classrooms and older buildings crippled by facilities woes. Pictures circulating online showed students in coats and a classroom thermometer with temperatures in the 40s.

"As of now, I have on four shirts, two hoodies and a jacket," high school senior Dennis Morgan told NPR. "It's kind of hard to get comfortable when you've got so many layers on and you're not used to it and you're still cold."

Baltimore City Public Schools were closed Thursday, both because of the snow and building conditions. Schools remained closed Friday. The decision came after the Baltimore Teachers Union on Wednesday sent a letter that asked the school system's chief executive, Sonja Santelises, to close the buildings until officials could assess the situation.

"Trying to provide a stable learning environment in these extreme conditions is unfair and inhumane, to say the least," read the letter, signed by Baltimore Teachers Union President A. Marietta English.

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Educators were trying to work in classrooms that were cold, drafty or had no heat, English said in a phone interview.

"They either had to move to another place, like the cafeteria . . . or they had to sit in their classrooms in coats, hats and gloves and try to teach," she said. "It was unacceptable."

The union received numerous calls about conditions in schools and classrooms, English said.

"High school students are not going to stay in the class; they're going to leave," she said. "And our little ones are subjected to this, and it's just an unhealthy environment, it's not ideal for our children to be sitting there trying to learn and concentrate when you're cold. You can't do it."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement the conditions were "unsafe, unbearable and unacceptable" for students, teachers and school staff.

In a video posted to Facebook, Santelises on Wednesday pointed to a long stretch of low temperatures and said older buildings presented a challenge for personnel. Pipes can burst at any time, boilers can break or structures can become drafty.

"So really, the combined challenges of sustained low temperatures that are truly unprecedented for this time of year, as well as the, frankly, very old condition of our buildings is just a combination that is proving, and has proved to be, quite challenging to manage," she said.

Santelises said in a phone interview 60 schools had registered a complaint or issue by the end of the school day Wednesday, about a third of the system.

On Thursday, officials worked to resolve as many of the problems as they could, she said, but new schools also added other concerns during the day.

"The challenge is when you have systemic underinvestment for a number of years, eventually there's a day of reckoning," she said. "And when you have a two-week cold spell, that's what happens. Now it doesn't make it okay for kids to be in cold classrooms, it doesn't make it okay for those conditions to be in place, but it is the reality."

Jason Lewis, a teacher at Reach! Partnership School, said the majority of classrooms in his building had heat earlier in the week, but common areas — hallways, stairwells — did not.

Seventeen classrooms were without heat, he said.

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Lewis did have heat in his classroom but still spent the day teaching in his jacket. He wore gloves while stapling work sheets in the morning.

"This is going to continue to be an ongoing issue," he said. "As soon as the first heat wave hits in either June or September, there's going to be another article about the classrooms being too hot, and the students not being able to sit and be comfortable. And the next time it's cold, this is going to happen again. I just feel like all these issues come in waves, and everyone keeps pointing fingers."

Maybin, who teaches pre-K through fifth-graders, described the situation as "mass institutional negligence" on the part of those in the school system who hold positions of power.

"This isn't anything new, it isn't something people didn't know was going on. It isn't something people couldn't have seen coming," he said. "They set themselves up to come back to a frozen school, they set themselves up to come back to a school where they were struggling with electricity."

Seeing his students deal with the cold, Maybin said, has been "heartbreaking."

"When I'm sitting there in a classroom with my students, who I know, who I love, who I understand, who I expect the most out of, who I definitely drive to be better — when I'm a room with them, and they can see their breath in the room, and some of them don't have winter coats, so they're shivering, their lips are chapped, they're ashy, you know what I mean? . . . It's infuriating. It makes you angry. It makes you sad. It makes you heartbroken. But more than anything, you want to do something."

Maybin has used his Twitter account to shed light on conditions in schools. He also has posted about an online fundraising campaign to collect money for space heaters and outerwear for students. By Friday, the effort had raised more than $47,000.

Jeffrey San Filippo, a teacher at Calverton Elementary/Middle School, said that when he arrived at work Tuesday morning, the building was "extremely cold." Later in the morning, the temperature in his classroom was in the mid-40s. After lunch, students gathered in the cafeteria to finish the day "because the classrooms were entirely too cold," he said.

Students were wearing gloves and winter coats, San Filippo said. Some called their parents and asked to go home.

"I think this really just shows Baltimore City's facilities have been underfunded for years, and this is what happens when you have a cold spell," he said. "The boilers can't keep up, and students are made to suffer."

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