ABOVE: HISD cancelled classes last Tuesday as freeze gripped Houston region
On Friday, Jan. 12, Axios warned that the entire “Lower 48” states were under weather watches and warnings, due to a rapidly intensifying winter storm. The National Weather Service went even further, saying that every single one of these United States were under a NWS watch, warning, or advisory.
Climate reporter Andrew Freedman added that the storm (brewing in Canada) would push Arctic air south, from Montana all the way to the Gulf Coast. “On Friday morning, temperatures bottomed out at minus 52°F in Edmonton, Alberta, indicating the significance of the frigid air charging southward,” he wrote.
Local Houston forecasts were also foreboding, saying temperatures would dip into the 40s between Friday evening and Saturday morning. “Overnight, those temperatures will be plummeting,” cautioned meteorologist Elita Loresca. Saturday morning indeed brought 40-degree temperatures. Though it warmed to around 60 degrees by afternoon, Sunday morning brought another blast of Arctic air, dropping temperatures back into the 40s.
By Monday, temps were in the 30s, falling into the 20s that night. Similar patterns happened on Tuesday, with Houston and surrounding areas struggling to get above freezing. Ice developed on roads and bridges, with more than 100 ice-related car crashes occurring between midnight and 8 AM Tuesday, per the Houston Police Department.
HISD joined other school districts in closing schools on Tuesday. But later that evening, HISD Superintendent Mike Miles expressed regret over that decision. During a District Advisory Committee meeting, Miles took ownership of what he called a “mistake.”
“We made a decision to close schools today. I’m not sure that was the best decision,” Miles said. He added that “despite the whining, despite the people who are exaggerating, saying we’re going to cost peoples’ lives, I got to ignore that and think about the kids and our core function” […] “I’m the one to blame,” he told the committee. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
The comments were recorded by a member of the advocacy group Community Voices for Public Education. When the audio leaked, Miles’ comments drew widespread criticism. But Miles remained unbowed, saying that teachers and schools are “essential” (partly because low-income students rely on school for hot meals. But it’s hard to make hot meals with no heat).
“HISD has turned on the heat so buildings will be comfortable for students and staff and bus drivers will arrive early to warm up buses before they pick up students,” the district said in an email Tuesday night. But the district soon changed its tune after schools reopened the next day. “Technicians are working to address problems with the heaters at Harvard Elementary School and Pershing Middle School. Our operations team is sending portable heaters to those schools now while crews work to fix the problems,” HISD said in a statement early Wednesday.
Additionally, Henry Middle School dismissed students early at 12:30 pm after a boiler tripped the electrical circuit and caused heating issues. (A busted pipe on the second floor also forced staff to move students elsewhere.) Port Houston Elementary (near Pleasantville) and Love Elementary (in the Heights) also had heating issues; they both held early dismissal at 1 pm. And at Felix Cook Elementary (located in Trinity Gardens), the district said an automated message went out to parents saying that the City of Houston would be working on planned maintenance on a water line that would affect plumbing. They said they provided hand sanitizers to students. But a teacher who didn’t want to be identified revealed: “We were escorting kids as young as four years old to use Port-a-Potties in 24-degree weather.”
Angry parents, teachers, and community members let Miles have it at a four-hour HISD board meeting on Thursday, Jan. 18. “Shame, shame, shame on F. Mike Miles for saying that he would not close the schools again. I want to ask him: how many young people does he have in his household that would have had to stand on a cold bus stop early in the morning? It’s ludicrous. It’s very, very obvious that F. Mike Miles, you don’t really care about us,” said poet Sonya Lucas Roberts via Zoom.
Zoom speaker Michelle Williams: “Yesterday, the state of Texas watched as chaos unfolded within the state’s largest school district. Not only was there chaos, the appointed superintendent’s disrespectful comments were leaked via social media. Instead of apologizing to the parents, students and staff, Mr. Miles attempted to justify his words by perpetuating the poverty narrative about Black and Latino students,” she said. “We will not allow Mr. Miles to use the students’ basic needs not being met to turn teachers into babysitters.”
Former board trustee Kathy Blueford Daniels addressed the board in-person. “Our children are our highest and most important commodity,” she said. “So to jeopardize any of them by opening schools and saying it was one of your biggest regrets [to close], that’s regrettable. Which of you would be like Abraham in the Bible and be willing to sacrifice your child?” she asked the board. “What are the true priorities for the children?”
Speaker Aimee VonBokel learned the hard way that the board wasn’t interested in addressing community concerns. “I’m actually not sure how to use my time up here,” she told the board, ‘cause you’re not responding. Why are you not responding?”
“Ma’am, we’re here to hear comments,” said board president Audrey Momanaee. “We have 73 speakers.”
“Will you respond at some point?” VonBokel asked.
“Ma’am, by law, we cannot respond to you if it’s not posted,” said an off-camera voice. “So you can speak to the board, but they cannot have a conversation with you.” A flustered VonBokel answered: “It just feels like you have a plan that you’re going to go through with, whatever we say. It feels destructive.”
The board didn’t respond to her or CVPE co-founder Ruth Kravetz. “You put our kids in freezing schools and didn’t allow schools to close until testing was done. How shameful that you think that test data is essential, but kids’ well-being is not,” Kravetz said.
Teacher Brandi Dowda asked: “Will you hold Mr. Miles accountable for prioritizing testing over the comfort and safety of staff and students? Many campuses had no heat and or no water or plumbing yesterday. Mr. Miles said he regretted closing the schools on Tuesday and cited students keeping warm and needing a hot meal as one of the reasons. Where was the concern yesterday when students were shivering in the midst of map testing, and there was no running water to allow our nutrition workers to cook hot lunches?
Mr. Miles has already shown his lack of care during the extended freeze, which our community does not have the infrastructure for,” she said. “Are you going to hold him accountable, or will we be expected to swim through snake- and fire ant-infested waters to conduct testing during the next spring flood or hurricane?”
Retired school nurse Christi Michelle Brewster dragged Miles in her remarks: “I just came today to say: thank you for dividing our school districts into the haves and have-nots. For purging Hattie Mae [White Building] during the summer of 2023,” she said. “For the fiasco at HR and payroll. For firing people for any kind of reason, hiring uncertified anybodies. Thank you for the Massa-overseer style observation of the classrooms. Principal musical chairs. The outrageous curriculum lessons. Closing libraries. Firing librarians […] Thank you for the ‘Sunrise Centers’ that look like they gon’ sunset, because of low usage. But most of all, thank you for saying that you regret closing schools. Because that might be your exit ticket.”