Like most other area schools, Chester High School was closed for two days last week because of the "bomb cyclone" that brought snow, wind, and freezing temperatures to the region. But it wasn't the first time this year weather conditions shut down the struggling 43-year-old school.
Students had already missed nearly a week of instruction because of a faulty heating and air-conditioning system at the 925-student school in Delaware County. A $7.5 million project to replace boilers, ventilators, and piping was supposed to be finished in November but was delayed by the discovery of asbestos and minor problems, said district receiver Peter Barsz.
Workers spent the summer removing the asbestos, but the job wasn't complete when the school bell rang for the new year, so classes started two days late. Students missed another half-day when Chester High dismissed early on the Friday before Christmas because the building was too chilly. School was also closed for two days last week when temperatures plummeted to double digits and the heater didn't work.
"How do you think children are going to learn when they have to sit with coats and hats?" said School Board President Anthony Johnson. "Then [people] say they're unruly 'cause they don't want to learn. Radnor parents wouldn't put up with this. They would be filing injunctions as we speak."
The recent record cold spell along the Eastern seaboard called nationwide attention to classrooms with little or no heat, not just in the Chester Upland district but in cities such as Baltimore, which closed a handful of schools as pictures of shivering students in heavy winter coats and gloves went viral. But officials said last week's problems have been years in the making, as schools deferred spending on critical infrastructure, especially since the 2008 financial crisis.
Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund, which looks at how school facilities issues affect education and equity, said its research shows schools on average are spending about 60 percent of what is needed for infrastructure, which then leads to large, wasteful expenses when costly temporary boilers must be brought in and some classes are cancelled.
"These buildings are complicated, they're old, and they have a lot that's being demanded of them," said Filardo, who noted that most older schools in the Philadelphia area were built in the era when asbestos, lead paint and other products now known to be hazards were used, hindering repairs.
In the Philadelphia School District, officials have long acknowledged that many boilers in its 215 schools require major repairs – a significant part of the $4.5 billion they say is needed to fix all the infrastructure issues in its facilities.
Yet, Philadelphia's problems during the recent cold snap – such as a shutdown Monday of the K-8 Juniata Park Academy because of a busted pipe and heating issues that closed a part of Solis-Cohen Elementary in the Northeast – were relatively minor.
In Upper Darby, temperatures in a few classrooms at Beverly Hills Middle School fell below 60 degrees, but superintendent Dan Nerelli said there was no need to close the school. But he acknowledged that heating systems and other infrastructure in aging schools in the Delaware County district will need $55 million in work in the next few years and that the failure in Harrisburg to fund a capital program that aids local districts will hurt.
In Chester Upland, Johnson said he and other school officials are frustrated and will meet with city and state representatives on Friday to discuss the impoverished state-run school system's facilities. State Rep. Brian Kirkland and City Councilman William Morgan are expected to attend.
Superintendent Juan Baughn said he too was disappointed with the ongoing heating problems at Chester High.
Because of the project delay, two temporary boilers were installed in November to heat the 400,000-square-foot, five-story building until eight small, permanent boilers could be installed. It wasn't enough.
A third temporary boiler was installed last week to boost the system.
"For the first time in at least two weeks, I'm sitting in my office without a coat and several heaters," said Baughn. Administration offices are located in the high school.
Heating at Chester High School has been faulty for years and has closed school before. Pipes were replaced and other work completed in 2016 in the first phase of the HVAC replacement project, funded with $3.3 million from the state.
Last March, the district borrowed $7.5 million for phase two through the federal Qualified Zone Academy Bond (QZAB) Program, which allows schools serving low-income populations to finance the renovation of school facilities or purchase equipment with low-interest loans.
Now school officials say the new system is expected to be up and running in two weeks.
Johnson, who wants control of the district returned to the local school board, said he thinks the heating problem stemmed from a lack of oversight.
But Barsz said delays are expected on a project that is as large and complicated as this.