Board mod­i­fies heat clos­ing pol­icy

Balto. Co. schools now have two heat in­dex mark­ers to con­sider in ex­treme weather

Baltimore Sun - - NEWS - By Liz Bowie liz.bowie@balt­sun.com

The Bal­ti­more County school board voted Tues­day night to mod­ify the pol­icy that has re­quired of­fi­cials to close schools for ex­treme heat on two of the first five days of the school year.

Schools that lack air con­di­tion­ing now may re­main open un­less the heat in­dex is fore­cast to reach 90 de­grees by 11 a.m. If the heat in­dex is ex­pected to reach 90 de­grees by 3 p.m., par­ents may keep their chil­dren home and get an ex­cused ab­sence.

The orig­i­nal pol­icy re­quired of­fi­cials to close schools if the heat in­dex was fore­cast to hit 90 at any point in the day. The board voted 8-3 to change it.

“We all sup­port healthy school en­vi­ron­ments,” said school board mem­ber Ed­ward Gil­liss, but “some­times those bright-line poli­cies” need amend­ing.

He said the school sys­tem needs to con­sider not just heat but ath­let­ics, par­ent work sched­ules and day care for stu­dents. Some chil­dren will not get breakfast and lunch when schools are closed. He said some of those is­sues were not con­sid­ered when the board passed its pol­icy this month.

All schools are sched­uled to be open to­day.

Con­tentious de­bate over the is­sue con­tin­ued for more than an hour. Some board mem­bers said noth­ing had hap­pened in the three weeks since they ap­proved manda­tory clo­sures on hot days three weeks ago to war­rant a change. Oth­ers said the flood of emails and phone calls they have re­ceived dur­ing the first week of school re­flected a need to re­visit the pol­icy.

The manda­tory clo­sures have up­ended fam­ily sched­ules, de­layed the start of the school ath­let­ics sea­son, and an­noyed par­ents with young chil­dren who’ve had to scram­ble to ar­range child care.

The pol­icy adopted over the sum­mer forced of­fi­cials to close 37 schools with­out air con­di­tion­ing on two of the first five days of the year. It was passed by the board af­ter pres­sure from a group of par­ents con­cerned about chil­dren in swel­ter­ing class­rooms.

The board took dis­cre­tion over when to close schools away from the su­per­in­ten­dent. Of­fi­cials were re­quired to close schools that don’t have air con­di­tion­ing when­ever the fore­cast called for the heat in­dex to rise to 90 de­grees at any time dur­ing the day. The clos­ings had to be an­nounced by 8 p.m. the night be­fore the heat in­dex was fore­cast to hit 90.

The 136 schools that have air con­di­tion­ing have not been af­fected.

Stu­dents at the 37 schools have lost two days of classes, af­ter-school ac­tiv­i­ties and sports prac­tices.

Par­ents com­plained, and school board mem­bers said they would re­con­sider the pol­icy.

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 at those schools still wait­ing for re­lief.

With more heat fore­cast in com­ing days, Dal­las Dance even some par­ents who had pushed for the manda­tory clo­sures said the pol­icy had to be mod­i­fied.

Those par­ents, who calls them­selves Ad­vo­cates for Bal­ti­more County Schools, worked with Comptroller Peter Fran­chot to get the school sys­tem to in­stall por­ta­ble air con­di­tion­ers this sum­mer, but County Ex­ec­u­tive Kevin Kamenetz op­posed them.

Kamenetz ar­gued that it would be a waste of tax dol­lars to put por­ta­ble units in build­ings that are sched­uled to get cen­tral air con­di­tion­ing within a year.

He 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.

Had the pol­icy been in ef­fect last school year, schools with­out air con­di­tion­ing might have closed twice in Au­gust, six times in Septem­ber and twice in May.

Schools Su­per­in­ten­dent Dal­las Dance has said he will seek a waiver from the Mary­land State De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­quire­ment that stu­dents be in school for 180 days if more heat-re­lated clo­sures oc­cur.

Un­der such a waiver, stu­dents at the af­fected schools would not have to make up the missed days later in the school year.

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