With Winter Storm Grayson bearing down on the East Coast, Baltimore schools plunged into sub-freezing temperatures on Friday, prompting widespread complaints from teachers and students about the frigid temperatures they were made to endure. It soon became clear that many of the city's public schools had inadequate, outdated or otherwise non-functional heating systems, and on Thursday, all of the city's public schools were ordered closed on account of the cold.
To make matters worse, hungry students from shuttered schools were told that they'd be served lunch at local recreational centers instead — only to find that there was no food when they arrived, the Baltimore Sun reported.
Many saw the problems as illustrative of widespread deficiencies in the Baltimore public school system, and criticized public officials for failing to keep students nourished and warm. Many officials were quick to blame one another but slow to accept any personal responsibility for the failings.
"It's really ridiculous the kind of environment we place our children into and expect them to get an education," Aaron Maybin, an NFL-player-turned-teacher in Baltimore, posted on Twitter Wednesday. "I got two classes in one room, kids are freezing, Lights are off. No computers. We're doing our best but our kids don't deserve this."
Maybin later posted a video of him asking his students about how cold it's been in school lately, to which one responds, "Yesterday, I had frostbite."
“Any good mother would take their children out of school,” parent Chastity Spears told CBS Baltimore. “The water is cold! It’s unbearable. There’s icicles in the classroom. The cold water jug is frozen solid. It’s inhumane for these children.”
Soon, images of freezing schools and students wearing winter coats inside classrooms flooded social media. This prompted some to point out other concerns with the city's public school system, such as the school lunches its students are served.
It wasn't long before public officials started blaming one another for the problems.
Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen wrote a letter to Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh and the state's governor, Larry Hogan, expressing "deep concern about Baltimore City school students who have been attending classes in frigid classrooms" and asking Pugh and Hogan to "take whatever steps necessary in the near-term to ensure that emergency repairs are carried out quickly."
In response, Pugh acknowledged that "the lack of heat, poorly insulated windows, broken plumbing and other critical infrastructure issues have created an unacceptable and dangerous environment for our children" — but denied that Baltimore's city government has the ability to fix this.
"The fact that Baltimore City Public Schools was separated from Baltimore City government over 20 years ago and ceded to the jurisdiction of the state of Maryland inhibits my ability to intervene in critical areas that require state authority and the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners to address," Pugh wrote in a letter.
But state officials demurred as well. Hogan said in a statement that "individual school facility decisions are ultimately made at the city level," while Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford wrote in a tweet that "our administration has fully funded Baltimore City Schools for the entirety of our time in office."
“In fact, we provided more than the formulas called for," Boyd continued. "The money is not reaching the classroom–ask North Ave. why?”
North Avenue is where the Baltimore City Public Schools district office is located. In a Facebook Live video, BCPS Chief Sonja Santelises blamed the problems on the combination of sustained low temperatures and the "very old condition of our buildings." She suggested that a lack of long-term attention to Baltimore's public schools is to blame.
“The challenge is when you have systemic underinvestment for a number of years, eventually there’s a day of reckoning,” Santelises told the Washington Post. “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.”
As officials pointed fingers, the Baltimore Teachers Union demanded Wednesday that all of the city's schools be closed until the heating situation is resolved. BCPS officials finally heeded the call on Thursday, BuzzFeed reports, announcing that all city schools would be closed for the day.
Meanwhile, a college senior has set up a GoFundMe page to provide heaters and warm clothes to Baltimore schoolchildren.
“These kids are cold. They’re cold as of last month, as of last week, as of yesterday,” said Coppin State senior Samierra Jones, who started the GoFundMe page. “There is no reason why these babies should be sitting in classrooms with no heat.”