The first weeks of the new school year in D.C. have brought reunions, excitement — and complaints of leaks, rodents, and broken elevators and air conditioners.
As temperatures soared during a stretch of sweltering heat last week, parents at Whittier Elementary School in Northwest Washington complained of a lack of air conditioning and wrote on social media: “We can’t breathe!”
Temperatures that pushed HVAC systems across the city past their limits have since cooled, but other issues — including out-of-service elevators and faulty public address systems — continue to vex teachers, students and their families.
The problems span the city. Among the more than 80 outstanding work orders are requests for pest control at Deal Middle School in Northwest and to repair leaks on the Langdon Education Campus in Northeast, according to a city-run database of repair needs. The ongoing problems continue to frustrate families and city leaders, who had hoped these issues would have been resolved by the first day of school.
Delano Hunter, acting director of the Department of General Services, acknowledged the D.C. government agency has room to improve. The department is responsible for maintenance and repairs in school buildings and other city-owned property.
But Hunter also said the department’s work this summer reflects a “dramatic improvement” from past school years, though the numbers suggest a more modest improvement. Last summer, DGS resolved about 88 percent of work orders that principals and other school leaders deemed to be “high priority” — whittling a list of 874 requests down to about 100 by the first day of school.
This year, DGS started the summer with more than 4,000 work orders, 916 of which were considered “high priority.” Crews have resolved all but 84 of the total high-priority requests, or more than 90 percent, according to Hunter.
“We’re working as hard as possible, so when we have these periods of extreme temperatures we don’t have any outages,” Hunter said. He added that HVAC problems affected individual classes or clusters of rooms but not entire schools and that crews have reacted quickly to make repairs or install temporary solutions, such as spot coolers and window air conditioning units.
As schools reopen, D.C.-area districts face more covid cases
D.C. Council member Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), who chairs the committee that oversees DGS, said the department will have a bigger budget when the new fiscal year starts in October. “My hope is that these things will get fixed more effectively and efficiently,” she said.
At Sousa Middle School in Southeast, students and teachers have dealt with mold, a broken PA system and problems with classroom door locks, according to council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7). A DGS spokesperson said Thursday those problems had been fixed.
The middle school, however, is still having issues with air conditioning, Gray said.
“While the overwhelming majority of schools in Ward 7 have reliable AC and comfortable classroom environments, unfortunately, there were schools without reliable AC,” Gray wrote in a statement. He added that a three-day air conditioning outage at nearby J.C. Nalle Elementary School ended after crews installed window units and that intermittent issues at Anne Beers and Randle Highlands elementary schools had also been resolved.
The classrooms in H.D. Woodson High School felt much cooler Thursday after two weeks of heat, said Maxine Jefferson, a special-education teacher at the Northeast campus. But when temperatures were higher, “it felt like a dryer on the third floor, and I teach on the third floor,” she said.
The school is still contending with other maintenance problems. Its elevator has been broken since last school year, posing issues for a student who uses a wheelchair as well as for Jefferson, who was ordered by her doctor to lessen her use of stairs ahead of an upcoming back surgery, she said.
D.C. mishandles repair requests in schools, other buildings, audit says
The school’s auditorium also smells of mold, Jefferson added, and some teachers have resorted to installing door sweeps and stocking up on mothballs to curb mice. Hunter said rodent abatement is considered a “high-priority” issue and that DGS deploys crews as soon as it receives a work order.
“It’s pockets of the school that should have lights on or should be brightened up, and they’re not because the lightbulbs haven’t been replaced,” Jefferson said. She blames some of the delay on her school’s location in one of D.C.’s poorest areas. “East of the [Anacostia] river, it takes them a lot longer to get to us. The students and the teachers should have places that are safe to work.”
The complaints come less than a year after city auditors found “multiple failures” in the way DGS handles work orders. Auditors described shortcomings in the management system the agency uses to handle service requests and said the crews failed to meet deadlines.
Lewis George said the agency has made changes since the report, including creating a quality assurance team. But the department should be doing more preventive maintenance in schools and making faster repairs, she said, particularly in wards 7 and 8. Schools with powerful parent-teacher organizations tend to be serviced faster than schools in less wealthy swaths of the city, she said.
“We need to be ready to respond to issues in these buildings even faster and make long-term repairs whenever possible,” Lewis George said. “People were just wanting a permanent solution and don’t want the contingency to be the end-all, be-all as the school year goes on.”