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Some Baltimore County schools will close Wednesday due to heat; dozens of city schools to dismiss early

A heat wave will continue to upend the start of school for the more than 70 Baltimore city and county schools without adequate air conditioning on what was supposed to be their second day back from summer vacation.

Baltimore City will close more than 60 schools three hours early on Wednesday, and the county will keep eight schools and two centers closed for the day. The city’s plan gives schools enough time to provide free breakfast and lunch.

But the abbreviated schedule is frustrating students who say they are entitled to class time and parents who have to scramble for last-minute child care.

On the first day of Ziya Green’s junior year, the heat inside Renaissance Academy was relentless.

“It was blazing,” said Green, 17. “The fans were just blowing out hot air.”

Renaissance is among the city schools with inadequate — if any — air conditioning. Classes at these schools were dismissed three hours early Tuesday, when the heat index rose above 100 degrees.

The city’s health department has declared a “code red” heat advisory, with the heat index expected to reach 105 degrees, through Thursday.

“The reality of our schools is they hold heat,” city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said. “One day of heat is not the only part of the story. We have to look at the trajectory of the week and see how long it’ll take to cool schools down.”

Just like this past winter — when viral photos showed Baltimore children huddled in freezing classrooms — the first day of classes Tuesday became an occasion for political finger-pointing. Gov. Larry Hogan called the situation disgraceful and faulted the local districts for not moving fast enough to cool their schools.

The Republican governor, who is running for re-election this fall, noted that he and Democratic Comptroller Peter Franchot have been putting pressure on city and county school officials to add air conditioning to all their schools for years.

“It’s just outrageous,” Hogan said during a State House news conference on accountability in education.

On Twitter, the governor said it reflected a “lack of leadership, lack of oversight, and lack of responsible spending.”

The temperatures in Baltimore city and county classrooms have long been at the center of heated political debate. The state Board of Public Works voted in 2016 to withhold millions of dollars in school construction money from the two districts unless officials agreed to install air conditioning in all classrooms by the start of the school year.

The board later reinstated the money after the school districts presented plans to install air conditioning in all classrooms. The city presented a plan to cool all of its schools within five years, while the county said they would do it in four. Both systems have been building and renovating new schools at a rapid pace, replacing outdated facilities while also installing air-conditioning. This summer, the city unveiled five new or renovated buildings and the county opened two rebuilt schools and one new school.

“We’re on track,” Santelises said. “But we still have days in between that we have to navigate.”

After Baltimore City College dismissed at 11:40 a.m., a small group of students gathered outside around noon to protest the conditions they say are depriving them of the education they deserve. The students are demanding Hogan direct millions more dollars into the city school system to pay for renovations.

“It’s a matter of higher-up power,” said Joshua Lynn, a City College sophomore and the student member on the school board. “The district can only do so much with what is handed to them. … It’s just a matter of the governor kicking us the funds and being fair to Baltimore City.”

Henry Bethell, 17, also a City College student, suggested Hogan use $300 million of the $504 million state surplus announced last week on the school facilities in Baltimore.

“It is a constitutional right to an education under the (state) constitution,” Bethel said. “The state funds most of Baltimore City schools and they don’t fund schools adequately.”

Ben Jealous, the former NAACP president who is challenging Hogan this November, said the lack of air conditioning speaks to the governor’s “failure to lead.”

“This is not a time for a governor to be casting aspersions and throwing local leaders under the bus,” Jealous said. “This is a time for a governor to be on the ground, putting leaders together and figuring out how to fix this once and for all.”

Standing in front of the county’s newest school, Honeygo Elementary, on an already steamy morning, County Executive Don Mohler said he was “disappointed for the students and parents who are ready to go.”

But he said in the past seven years, the county has made great strides to get air conditioning into the 40 percent of schools that lacked it. Today, 95 percent of county schools are air-conditioned, he said, and there are plans to have all but two schools completed by 2021.

The state shares the cost of funding school facilities, but Mohler said the county went ahead and paid for the entire cost of some of the air-conditioning projects up front before seeking reimbursement to expedite the process.

The state “still owes us $200 million,” Mohler said, and he would be happy to speed up the process if the governor wants to give him the money.

Of the eight county schools that were closed Tuesday, Woodlawn and Patapsco high schools are in the midst of renovations that will be completed in the fall of 2019. Dundalk Elementary, which is being completely rebuilt, will be finished next fall as well. In 2020, Colgate and Berkshire elementary schools will have air conditioning, and Bedford elementary will get it in 2021.

That will leave two high schools — Dulaney and Lansdowne — still without air conditioning. Both are old schools that their communities have argued need to be replaced. Mohler said Tuesday he expects the next county executive and County Council to make a decision after the election about which to replace first.

The two centers that were closed Tuesday are Campfield Early Learning Center and Catonsville Center for Alternative Studies.

The city instituted new heat protocols after the cold schools crisis last winter. Schools with inadequate cooling or no air conditioning are to dismiss three hours early on days when the outside heat index reaches 100 degrees by 10:30 a.m. or when the interior temperature in a majority of classrooms in most schools reaches 85 degrees, and students cannot be relocated to cooler areas of buildings.

The city alerted most families about Tuesday’s early dismissal the evening before. They announced the early dismissal of seven additional schools Tuesday morning.

The district always aims to keep schools open, Santelises said. The decision to release students early — rather than cancel altogether — is partially attributed to the need to provide free breakfast and lunch to the many Baltimore students who depend on it.

Still, Tambra Jones said she’s frustrated by the early dismissal. She works full time in the state comptroller’s office, but had to miss most of her workday Tuesday to pick up and care for her 6-year-old son AJ, a first-grader at Medfield Heights Elementary. The little boy was excited to get back to learning.

“I’m missing unnecessary time from work,” she said. “It’s unacceptable for the first day of school to be cut off early.”

Discussions about the hot conditions dominated the first day of school, rather than talk about literacy — a focus area for both city and county school officials.

Both school leaders — Santelises and Baltimore County’s Interim Superintendent Verletta White — are doubling down on efforts to improve “literacy,” a buzzword in education meaning students should be fluent in the vocabulary of science and social studies, as comfortable reading a novel as explaining a scientific experiment. Students are to spend more time writing, and understanding complex subjects.

But White also wants students to learn the basics of communication — from using technology to knowing how to look someone in the eyes and shake their hand.

Santelises spent the morning visiting Highlandtown Elementary/Middle, one of the city schools dubbed an “intensive learning site” for children’s reading, writing and speaking skills.

The school — which saw its English standardized test scores jump roughly 7 percentage points this year — serves the district’s fastest-growing demographic group. Its student population is roughly 70 percent Hispanic and about half of students are English language learners.

The district is paying for Highlandtown and about 20 other schools to get a full-time “literacy coach” this year. Highlandtown is also outfitted with a Literacy Lounge, a room filled with books and decorated with posters reminding students about pesky English homophones — words that sound the same, but have different meanings.

“Literacy is the key,” said Highlandtown principal Nancy Fagan.

Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

trichman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/TaliRichman

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