Dozens of parents wearing matching red shirts came to the Baltimore County Council meeting Tuesday to complain that a lack of air conditioning in many county schools leaves their children hot, sweaty and distracted from the task of learning.
"It's really upsetting. This just can't continue. You can't have children in rooms that are in the 90s and sometimes in the 100s," said Lily Rowe, who started a Facebook group that drew nearly 800 members in a week and served as a launching pad for Tuesday's rally at the council.
Rowe is a parent of two children at Cromwell Valley Elementary School in Towson — which does have air conditioning. But 52 public schools in Baltimore County, about 30 percent, do not.
The school district closed schools two hours early Tuesday because of the heat, and also canceled after-school and evening activities. School officials said the "forecasted extreme temperatures and relative humidity expected in many of our schools" necessitated the early dismissal.
But that was too little, too late for many parents, who over the past week have vented on social media. Some parents posted pictures online of thermometers in schools with readings in the 80s and 90s.
Jennifer Pintuck, who has two children at Arbutus Middle School, said her children "pay a high price" for their free education. Her daughter has health issues and has already been sent home from school early twice this year.
"When the temperatures are so high, the humidity is so high, the teachers can't teach," Pintuck said. Tuesday was the sixth day in September that temperatures reached at least 90 degrees in Baltimore. The high was 93 at Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport and 92 degrees at the Inner Harbor.
The school system does not have fixed criteria for deciding when to cancel classes or close early due to the heat. The superintendent makes the call after evaluating information such as the temperature, humidity and heat index. Transportation is also a consideration, as well as whether students could move to cooler parts of a building.
Rowe said the school system needs a policy that takes into account not only when to close schools, but how to make learning comfortable when schools are open on hot days. She said children need to be able to carry water to stay hydrated, and schools should allow an excused absence when a child goes home due to excessive heat.
County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said in a statement the county is "moving full speed ahead" to air condition more schools. He noted that the county has embarked on a funding plan that, by 2021, will have air conditioning either installed or in the funding pipeline for 99 percent of county schools.
Schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson said Superintendent Dallas Dance and the county school board are aware of problems and are evaluating all options – including possible use of portable air conditioners. But he noted they aren't feasible in all schools.
"The superintendent, in fact, is going to discuss these issues with the board's policy review committee and the full board," Dickerson said.
Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said policy changes would be "nothing more than a Band-Aid on a festering wound" as long as schools lack air conditioning.
Beytin urged the county to accelerate efforts to air condition schools, and urge Gov. Larry Hogan to release school funding for certain jurisdictions — including Baltimore County — that was withheld earlier this year.
"Our children are suffering, our teachers are suffering and our school staff are suffering through the heat and humidity," Beytin said.
At Tuesday's meeting, council members were sympathetic. Council Chairwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, echoed a comment from parents who noted the county jail is air conditioned, but some schools are not. "There is nothing logical about that," she said.
Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, said the county can't install air conditioning as fast as parents and teachers would like. "We can't snap a whip and make the money appear and air-condition the schools tomorrow," he said.
Answering questions from council members, county Chief Administrative Officer Fred Homan said between state contributions and county tax revenue, the county has limited money available for upgrading schools. The county has "pressed as hard as it can" against "available tax dollars."
Parents in Baltimore City — where about half of the schools lack air conditioning — also have complained about heat in classrooms. The city has not closed schools or dismissed class early due to the heat so far this school year. Schools in Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties have air conditioning.