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Winter is coming — and Ward 5 schools are unprepared

As cold temperatures set in, the District prepares for the annual cooling to heating switchover across public schools. But, hundreds of HVAC repairs are still pending.

Temperatures are dropping down to the thirties this week, but public schools in D.C.’s Ward 5 aren’t prepared.

On this third week of October, the Facilities Maintenance Division of the Department of General Services is expected to begin its annual cooling to heating system switchover operation to prepare public schools for cold weather conditions.

But, as the DGS’ own Public Work Order Dashboard shows, numerous school repairs are still pending and unfulfilled – some delayed by months.

Jennifer Fitzpatrick, a concerned parent and a teacher at Langdon Elementary School, brought the issue of delayed repairs to the public’s attention last month, when she spoke with WUSA9 about how some of the school’s students have been learning in the dark.

Jennifer Fitzpatrick, a parent and a teacher at Ward 5’s Langdon Elementary School, has been a vocal advocate for addressing the state of public school repairs across DCPS.

Faulty lighting has been an ongoing issue, and though some of the school’s lighting has since been repaired. The president of its Parent Teacher Organization, Shemika Smith, said that there is more to be done and recalled how teachers had to provide their own headlamps and appliances to compensate for the lack of proper lighting.

The D.C. Department of General Services Public Word Order Dashboard shows open and completed work orders from all D.C. public education campuses.

“I think the root cause of the issue is that when DCPS fixes things, it’s like they just put a band-aid over it, instead of doing a complete overhaul,” Smith said. “And I think that’s why continues to be an issue, not just in our schools, but [in]schools across D.C. When they fix it, they don’t do a complete fix.”

With winter approaching and autumn already here, the most concerning delays in public school repairs are the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, or HVAC, services.

“Every year when they switch from air conditioning to heat, it’s not fully functional, and every year, staff and parents and the community are left wondering why these issues are not being addressed when kids are not in the building when we had this whole pandemic year, we had all this time to check on all of these facility-based concerns,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview with The Wash.

The inability to regulate temperatures and faulty HVAC systems puts students, teachers, and staff health at risk.

“I guess my main concern is just being able to have a safe learning environment for my kids and other kids at the school. DC talks a lot about equity and equity within the school system, and equity starts with making sure that you have a safe learning environment,” Smith said.

Langdon Elementary isn’t the only public school with delayed repairs in Ward 5.

Smith said that schools with higher percentages of minority students – particularly Title I schools and those east of the Anacostia River – tend to be the schools most affected by delayed repairs.

In Wards 5, across 10 public education campuses alone, there are 116 open orders for HVAC services. In Ward 8, there are 130 open word orders for HVAC services across 18 schools; the earliest expected completion date is from May 2022. Comparatively, Ward 2, which has a lower minority population, has roughly 28 open work orders for HVAC services across 10 schools.

The earliest expected completion dates for these repairs are from ten months ago, in December 2021. It is unclear why maintenance issues across DCPS are so numerous and so significantly delayed.

“It’s clear that if we’re having issues right after modernization has [been] done to so many buildings, that something is not being completed correctly. If this was my house and that was the result of getting a remodel done, I would be in court suing the contractors, because they didn’t do the work correctly,” Fitzpatrick said.

In a statement emailed to The Wash in response to several requests for comment, Keith A. Anderson, director of the Department of General Services, said the Department of General Services  is conducting its annual cooling-to-heating changeover at all District-owned properties, starting Oct. 15.

“During this transition, DGS will be working with all District government properties to transfer air conditioning systems to heating services.  The 2022-23 heating system transition will include municipal buildings, schools, recreation centers, police stations, fire and emergency stations, homeless centers, and senior centers and will last for approximately 30 to 45 days,” Anderson wrote.

“The process of switching from air conditioning to heating involves significant engineering detail and, as a result, systems cannot return to cooling once taken offline, until the following spring season – which is a standard practice,” he said.  “During the transition, building temperatures may fluctuate up to 30 degrees within a 24-hour period which may impact target comfort levels, before leveling to desired comfort levels. DGS works closely with DCPS on any contingency plans for heating matters to ensure students, teachers and school administration are in a comfortable, safe environment.”

Lalini Pedris

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