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 on Wednesday.
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, 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.