Balto. Co. schools may al­ter heat-clo­sure plan

Board meets tonight af­ter temps cause 2nd shut­down

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Liz Bowie

Bal­ti­more County be­gan the school year with a new pol­icy that re­quires the dis­trict to can­cel classes in schools that don’t have air con­di­tion­ing when the weather grows too hot.

But af­ter high tem­per­a­tures forced the clo­sure of 37 schools for a sec­ond day Mon­day, the school board is ex­pected tonight to re­vise the pol­icy.

The clo­sures dur­ing two of the first four days of the school year have up­ended fam­ily sched­ules and could lead of­fi­cials to push back high school sports games sched­uled for Fri­day.

Par­ents say the new pol­icy has been too rigid and want the school board to change it so that stu­dents don’t fall be­hind. Even some who ag­i­tated for the pol­icy for years now say they want it changed.

The cur­rent pol­icy re­quires the dis­trict to shut down the non-air-con­di­tioned schools if the heat in­dex — a mea­sure that takes into ac­count tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity — is fore­cast to reach 90 at any time dur­ing the school day.

School board mem­ber Marisol John­son said she will pro­pose clos­ing schools only when the heat in­dex is fore­cast to reach 90 de­grees by 11 a.m.

Other op­tions in­clude bring­ing in gen­er­a­tors to cool the schools that don’t yet have air con­di­tion­ing, or rais­ing the heat in­dex limit to 95 or some other fig­ure.

John­son said she ex­pects the school board to vote to change the pol­icy tonight so that it will take ef­fect im­me­di­ately.

“It needs to be amended so we are not clos­ing schools for the next 10 days,” she said.

The Na­tional Weather Ser­vice is fore­cast­ing a heat in­dex of 87 de­grees to­day and 90 de­grees or above on Wed­nes­day. The weather is fore­cast to cool down dur­ing the end of the week.

Hope Mims, whose son is in the 11th grade at Dulaney High School, said she had to let her bosses at Ver­i­zon know on short no­tice that she needed time off be­cause the school was closed.

She’s wor­ried her son is al­ready fall­ing be­hind his peers at other schools.

“He’s watch­ing tele­vi­sion,” Mims said. “I can’t make him do school­work be­cause he doesn’t have a text­book.”

Mims said she was ed­u­cated in Bal­ti­more City and sat through classes with­out air con­di­tion­ing.

“I made it through,” she said.

The county is in the process of in­stalling air con­di­tion­ing in all its pub­lic schools. County and state of­fi­cials have sparred over fund­ing, tim­ing and whether to use por­ta­ble air con­di­tion­ers as an in­terim step.

A group called Ad­vo­cates for Bal­ti­more County Schools, which fa­vored por­ta­ble air con­di­tion­ers, pressed the board this sum­mer to es­tab­lish the heat pol­icy that now re­quires the dis­trict to close schools on hot days. Be­fore that, the de­ci­sion on when to close schools had been left to the dis­cre­tion of Su­per­in­ten­dent Dal­las Dance.

The group had worked with Comp­trol­ler Peter Fran­chot to get the school sys­tem to in­stall por­ta­ble air-con­di­tion­ers this sum­mer, but County Ex­ec­u­tive Kevin Kamenetz op­posed them.

One of the lead­ers of the group, par­ent Lily Rowe, said she wanted a pol­icy that would close all schools in the county, even if they were air-con­di­tioned, if the heat in­dex rose above 90 de­grees by 11 a.m. All schools would close two hours early if the heat in­dex was fore­cast to reach 90 de­grees af­ter 11 a.m. un­der that pol­icy.

Board mem­bers did not want to close all schools be­cause only 37 of the county’s 173 schools lack air con­di­tion­ing. They tweaked the rec­om­men­da­tion to ap­ply only to the 37 schools. (Board mem­bers said bus sched­ules didn’t al­low the flex­i­bil­ity to re­quire early clos­ings.)

But that left the board with a pol­icy that would re­quire mul­ti­ple clo­sures in the late spring and early fall.

Now the ad­vo­cacy group is call­ing for an im­me­di­ate mod­i­fi­ca­tion to the pol­icy, mem­ber Julie Su­gar said.

In a state­ment, Su­gar said the heat pol­icy is “re­sult­ing in many more full-day clo­sures than our pro­posal would have.”

Su­gar said she is con­fi­dent the board will come up with a so­lu­tion that ad­dresses the con­cerns of par­ents about child care and stu­dents miss­ing sports prac­tices.

School board mem­bers said that when ABC Schools pushed for the heat pol­icy, they didn’t hear from par­ents who felt dif­fer­ently. Since the clo­sures, those par­ents have be­gun email­ing and call­ing school board mem­bers and the school sys­tem com­plain­ing.

“Ev­ery­body wants air con­di­tion­ing,” said McDaniels. “There are a lot of par­ents out there who weren’t happy, but they were deal­ing with it. A lot of par­ents we didn’t hear from un­til we started clos­ing schools.”

ABC Schools is con­tin­u­ing to ag­i­tate for por­ta­ble air con­di­tion­ers. Mem­bers planned a pic­nic in front of the county court­house in Tow­son at 10 a.m. to­day to press their case.

Kamenetz said he de­fers to the school board and the su­per­in­ten­dent when it comes to poli­cies for clos­ing school.

“They’ve got to make some de­ci­sions of how this pol­icy will work its way through the process,” he said.

Kamenetz has pledged to in­stall air con­di­tion­ing in all but 11 schools by the start of school in 2017, and all but one school the year af­ter. He has dis­missed calls to use por­ta­ble air con­di­tion­ers, say­ing the units wouldn’t last long and wouldn’t be a good use of tax­payer dol­lars. He also said some schools have elec­tri­cal sys­tems that are too old to sup­port por­ta­ble units.

Emory Young, who has a son and a daugh­ter at Franklin Mid­dle School, said he’s been able to work from home while his chil­dren have been off from school. Young said he’s been en­cour­ag­ing them to use their time pro­duc­tively, but they’ve used the ex­tra days off as an ex­ten­sion of their sum­mer break.

Young said he un­der­stands why the schools are closed. He said the sys­tem made the best de­ci­sion it could.

Ath­letes from the seven closed high schools — Franklin, Dulaney, Ken­wood, Lans­downe, Pat­ap­sco, Over­lea and Wood­lawn — could not prac­tice Fri­day or Mon­day.

If they miss more prac­tices to­day and Wed­nes­day, county ath­let­ics co­or­di­na­tor Mike Sye said, it is “more than likely” that no teams would be able to play games Fri­day.

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