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After heat closes schools for a second day, Baltimore County school board to revisit policy

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 on Tuesday to revise the policy.

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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.

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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 on Tuesday night so that it will take effect immediately.

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"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 on Tuesday 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 at those schools still waiting for relief.

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. on Tuesday 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. "I suspect they'll make some fine-tuning."

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.

"Some of the classrooms can get extremely hot," he said. "I wouldn't expect it to be the best learning environment for them."

Student 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 on Tuesday and Wednesday, county athletics coordinator Mike Sye said, it is "more than likely" that no teams would be able to play games Friday.

Baltimore Sun reporters Katherine Dunn and Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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