Our view: Baltimore County’s mandatory heat closing policy needs to be revisited — before thousands of students fall further behind
On Friday at 11 a.m., Dulaney High School economics teacher Phil Bressler conducted his advanced placement classes by webinar. His 60 or so students were fortunate to have the option of receiving instruction via computer at home. Hundreds of other students weren’t so lucky — school was closed because it was hot outside.
“We’ve gone too far,” Mr. Bressler says of Baltimore County’s mandated heat closings. “The weather is not ideal, but it’s not that bad.”
If the Baltimore County Board of Education wanted to teach tens of thousands of their students that showing up for school is unimportant — or at least not worth a modest level of physical discomfort — they could scarcely have devised a more effective strategy. Was it hot on Friday? Absolutely, the high temperature reached 93 degrees by late morning in Timonium. But was that enough to justify not conducting class at 37 Baltimore County schools that lack air conditioning (or, in the case of Dulaney, aren’t fully air conditioned)? Not even a half-day of instruction?
We don’t think so, and we strongly suspect most Baltimore County parents don’t think so either. Worse, given the forecast for continued hot weather, the county has already canceled school for today, and it’s entirely possible the county may lose more days this week — to the point school officials are already wondering whether they’ll have to ask the state school board for an exemption to the 180-day rule.
That’s right. On Day 3 of Baltimore County’s 2016-2017 school calendar, doubt has already been cast on whether students will squeeze in sufficient classroom time between now and June. What an embarrassment — made all the worse by the partisan politics involved.
How did it come to this? The obsession among some regarding the lack of air conditioning in certain Baltimore County schools has gone beyond the pale. We get it: The county should provide air conditioning in its schools. But that’s already happening. The number that lack full AC has already been reduced from 90 in 2011 to the current 37 — and should be whittled down to 11 one year from now.
But that’s not good enough for a vocal group of parents with the backing of Comptroller Peter Franchot and Gov. Larry Hogan who have decided that portable air conditioning units should be provided in the interim regardless of cost or timing (potentially spending millions to outfit and rewire schools slated to be torn down, for example). As part of that push, the school board earlier this month embraced a new policy: Schools lacking full AC must be closed if a sufficiently high “heat index” — a combination of heat and humidity — is forecast a day in advance.
Thus, Superintendent Dallas Dance’s hands were tied last week and this regardless of actual conditions in his schools. Such a brain-dead regulation is, frankly, insane. We don’t tie Dulaney High School principal Sam Wykoop looks over the school’s courtyard. His was one of 37 county schools without air conditioning closed Friday because of heat. superintendent’s hands on snow days, we shouldn’t do it on heat days either. And it’s fair to wonder how much this brouhaha is about classroom conditions and how much is it about a political targeting of Kevin Kamenetz by Mr. Franchot and Mr. Hogan, given that the Baltimore County executive, a prominent Democrat, is rumored to be a candidate for statewide office in 2018. No amount of air freshener will cover up that unpleasant odor of political self-interest wafting from Annapolis.
The school board ought to repeal this nonsense immediately and leave it up to on-site school officials to decide what is tolerable. Students, teachers or other school-based workers with medical conditions should receive excused absences. County schools operated under those terms for generations and somehow prospered (Kids, there was no such thing as an air-conditioned Baltimore County school in the 1960s — just ask your grandparents).
As for whether a later start of the school year might have avoided this problem, don’t be so sure. Maryland’s weather doesn’t magically turn cooler when the calendar flips to September. Last year, it reached 94 degrees multiple days in September and as late as September 9. The other most available option, extending the school year beyond mid-June, isn’t necessarily much better as it hit 96 degrees on June 11 this year.
Meanwhile, parents and board members would be better served by focusing on the quality of education in the county and not so much on HVAC. Supporting high-performing and innovative teachers like Dulaney’s Mr. Bressler would do more to lift the county’s underwhelming recent standardized test scores than jiggering with the thermostat. And perhaps it might also help send the message that a high-quality K-12 education is worth a week or two of perspiration.