“It felt like broken trust in HISD”: Large-scale changes may be needed to repair the fallout from Wednesday’s heating failure fiasco

On Wednesday, teachers and students reported testing in classrooms with temperatures in the 40s and 50s, though HISD declined to confirm how many campuses experienced heating issues.

Houston ISD Headquarters

After numerous Houston ISD campuses reported issues with heating Wednesday, causing three schools to close early, all the district's schools were open Thursday and operating on schedule, according to a statement from HISD. Technicians are still working to fix mechanical issues at some campuses, where portable heaters are in use for the time being.

On Wednesday, teachers and students reported testing in classrooms with temperatures in the 40s and 50s, though HISD declined to confirm how many campuses experienced heating issues.

"Like many of the buildings in Houston that have older systems in them, some of our buildings do have older heaters or older pipes, and they have been affected by this colder weather," said Leila Walsh, HISD's chief communications officer.

The last time HISD passed a bond to improve facilities was in 2012, when voters approved a $1.89 billion bond to replace and repair 40 schools across the district. As of March 2023, HISD had over $2 billion in deferred maintenance to be completed across its campuses.

"This is an infrastructure we have not invested in in over a decade," said HISD Superintendent Mike Miles. He has previously said the district needs a new bond package.

Still, Miles stands by his decision to keep schools open and testing in progress as campuses faced heating issues.

"This district showed signs of a culture of essentialness today," Miles said Wednesday. "After one of the coldest nights in the last year, we still had 274 schools open."

Just a day earlier, Miles said he regretted closing schools Tuesday in response to freezing temperatures and icy roads, saying the district needed to create a culture of "essentialness." He contended teachers are essential workers, and in the event of icy conditions, they should still report for work but "drive slow and leave [the house] early."

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When Houston Public Media asked how cold schools would need to be for closures to be acceptable, Miles said it depends.

"It's not just a minimum temperature; it's how long it is, right? It's how long a person stays in it," Miles said. "If, on the whole, it's below 60 degrees and it stays that way for more than 3 hours or so, that's probably too cold. But some people might say that's not cold enough."

The Texas Administrative Code, however, stipulates that "comfort is an important part of air quality," and a classroom environment should be kept between 70 and 75 degrees in the winter.

Harvard Elementary in the Heights was one of the campuses that experienced heating outages on Wednesday. One parent of a third grader and kindergartener at the school said the school's principal sent out an email around 6:45 a.m. Wednesday, asking parents to dress their kids in hats, scarves and coats, as there was no heat at the school.

"I assumed that this meant they were about to postpone or cancel school," said the parent, who requested to remain anonymous. "I brought my kids around 10 a.m., along with a space heater, and when I went down to the kindergarten classroom, it was absolutely freezing."

She said she brought her kids because she trusted that, if HISD decided to keep classes in session, it must not be too bad. She later found out that, in addition to the cold, the school's cafeteria did not have water due to frozen pipes.

"You kind of trust that if they say school is open, then it's a safe environment," she said. "But then to get there and see how cold it really was...it felt like broken trust in HISD.”