For two days, frustrated parents in Baltimore have been forced to retrieve their children from school on short notice due to back-to-back early dismissals. The reason: a lack of functioning air conditioning systems that made buildings unbearably hot.
On Wednesday, a visibly irritated Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) ordered Maryland’s top education officials to conduct a building-by-building review to determine which schools lack proper ventilation and air filtration systems.
Thirty-one city schools were forced to shut down early on Tuesday, the second day of class.
Speaking at the start of the bimonthly Board of Public Works meeting, Hogan hammered local officials for failing to ensure that every building was ready for the start of the new school year.
“It’s unbelievable to me that this is still happening after the Comptroller and I have worked together for the last six years to push to get every school air conditioned, and to provide record funding for every school to be air conditioned, and our nonstop efforts to hold schools accountable,” the governor said.
Although the state has provided more than $3 billion in pandemic-related school aid statewide, Hogan said, there are still un-air-conditioned schools, though “it’s unclear … which schools or school systems have properly utilized all these billions in funding.”
The governor said his administration has requested a list for “months,” to no avail.
“[W]e’re no longer asking,” he declared.
Hogan asked the state superintendent of schools and the Interagency Commission on School Construction “to immediately provide us a report on ventilation and air filtration systems, district by district and school by school, and we will be holding school systems accountable for these financial resources and the way that they have been utilized to ensure that safe and healthy environments are in our school buildings for all of our kids.”
City school officials pushed back on the governor’s comments.
In a statement, they said the system is “successfully implementing the air conditioning plan” that he approved in 2017.
“The plan calls for all school buildings to be air conditioned by the 2022-2023 school year, depending on approvals and the availability of state funding,” officials added. “City Schools is on track to meet that goal. There would be no plan and five-year timeline if the governor did not approve it first, yet he continually denies his role.”
Baltimore has added AC to 54 schools, according to the statement, leaving 21 still without.
“City Schools is accountable to the community for implementing the plan the governor supported, and we are making progress on the plan,” the statement concluded.
Hogan’s comments come amid a nationwide debate over whether students should be back in school and to what extent students, teachers and staff should be required to get vaccinations.
Shortly before the governor spoke, former CDC director Tom Frieden tweeted that, “Indoor spaces, especially those with poor ventilation, are where Covid spreads most.”
“When everyone wears a mask, the risk of transmission is much lower,” he added.
Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Peter V.R. Franchot (D) agreed with Hogan about the need to put more pressure on local officials, who he accused of “political hubris” and “dragging their feet.”
“I find it to be just completely unacceptable,” he said. “The absence of HVAC units that should have been put in years ago and proper air circulation constitutes a serious public health issue and remains a socio-economic injustice.”
Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D), who serves alongside Hogan and Franchot on the board, said that “almost all” of the schools in Baltimore County, which faced similar HVAC issues in the past, have functioning heating and AC, and she cited the city’s progress.
“It’s good to have an accounting,” she said. “We’ll see what the facts actually are.”