Heat wave shuts area schools for 2nd day in row

September 18, 1991|By Peter Jensen and Lynda Robinson

Much to the delight of students and the dismay of some parents, most Baltimore-area schools dismissed one to two hours early yesterday as another record-setting day of hot and steamy weather made classrooms feel like saunas.

Baltimore schools shut down at 12:30 p.m. Public school systems in Anne Arundel and Harford counties closed two hours early, while Carroll and Baltimore counties dismissed one hour ahead of schedule.

"With the temperature as high as it [was] and the high humidity, we thought it best to dismiss early," said Albert F. Seymour, spokesman for Harford County schools. "It's really quite oppressive."

But plenty of parents were angered by the early closings.

"It's a disaster if you're a working, single parent," said Kim Durand, whose two children attend Roland Park Elementary School.

Ms. Durand, a paralegal in Harford County, was caught off guard when the city closed schools on Monday, and she had to scramble to find a neighbor to take care of them. She stayed home from work yesterday, knowing the city would close schools if the temperature reached 90 degrees by 11 a.m.

Only in Howard County, where all schools are air-conditioned, did classrooms stay open. Even so, Gateway School in Clarksville, the county's secondary school for troubled youth, closed at noon because some classrooms did not have window air-conditioning units.

By that time, the temperature had already reached 94 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and 95 at the Baltimore Custom House, at the corner of South Gay and Lombard streets. At 2:30 p.m., the mercury at BWI hit 97, breaking the old record of 92 set in 1972. At 4:15 p.m., the thermometer in the city soared to 99 degrees, breaking the 1972 record of 93.

Hagerstown was only slightly cooler, with a high of 96 degrees. In Bel Air, the high was 94. In Salisbury, 92.

By evening, thunderstorms rolled through large swaths of Central Maryland, bringing heavy rain and lightning to parts of the city and Baltimore, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties.

The storms left 27,500 households and businesses in the Baltimore area without power, said Art Slusark, a spokesman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. They also uprooted trees and downed wires in Randallstown, Pikesville, Towson, Lutherville and Cockeysville, Baltimore County police reported. The police were still working last night to assess the damage.

In the city, the temperature dropped to a low of 78, but the relief was expected to be fleeting.

The sweltering heat is expected to return today, though clouds should prevent the temperature from topping 90 degrees, said Bill Miller, a forecaster at the National Weather Service at BWI.

But cold air is on the way and should push the temperatures into the mid- to high-70s by tomorrow. By the weekend, the high temperature is expected to plummet into the mid-60s, Mr. Miller said.

BG&E had an easier time yesterday keeping thousands of air conditioners running, though the demand for energy exceeded Monday's peak for a September day, said Mr. Slusark, the spokesman for the utility.

BG&E and its regional power pool, which includes utilities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Washington, were able put additional generators into service and buy power from utilities in the Midwest, he said.

School administrators said yesterday's weather was worse than Monday for students because it was the second day of the heat wave. Temperatures had a chance to build up inside schools where windows are generally closed overnight for security reasons.

"It gets particularly uncomfortable at the top floors of multi-story buildings, which most of our high schools are, and it doesn't cool off," said Richard E. Bavaria, a spokesman for the Baltimore County public schools. "The environment is just not good for learning."

But he and other officials received a flood calls yesterday from parents on both sides of the fence. Some opposed keeping the schools open in the hot weather; others were irate that their children were being sent home -- in some cases without transportation or supervision once they got there.

In the metropolitan Baltimore area, only Baltimore has a cut-and-dry policy for when to dismiss schools early in hot weather. It requires a temperature of 90 degrees by 11 a.m. Other jurisdictions leave the decision to the superintendent.

"It really disturbs me because Baltimore City just closes unnecessarily," said Ms. Durand, the Roland Park parent, who called Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke to register her outrage on Monday. "There are many, many days when it's 90 degrees. It's just a fact of life."

Douglas J. Neilson, a spokesman for the city schools, said his office received at least 70 complaints yesterday. "People wanted to know, 'Will the school system pay for my baby sitter?' They don't understand that while it may not be all that uncomfortable in their homes right now, the temperature can skyrocket to 100 degrees in a class when it's only 90 degrees outside."

The debate over early dismissals wasn't confined to the Baltimore area. Washington County did not close schools early yesterday, and administrators heard from parents who said "that wasn't the thing to do," said Thomas A. Downs, the system's deputy superintendent.

As a result, "we will, in all likelihood, give serious consideration to closing [today]," Mr. Downs said.

On the Eastern Shore, Caroline County schools dismissed three hours early but Superintendent William R. Ecker was braced for the complaints he knew would come from parents.

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