Harford Schools on a Thawing Limb

January 25, 1994

Late Sunday, Ray R. Keech of Harford County seemed like the most prudent school superintendent in Maryland. He had put out the word early: He was closing Harford's schools again Monday.

By noon yesterday, however, when the thermometer nearly kissed 50 in Bel Air, many Harford parents were probably calling Dr. Keech names other than prudent. To be sure, his was not an easy call. Sunday, side streets were still masked in ice even in the more populous southern part of the county. Sidewalks remained treacherous. And a weekend of gray flannel skies had not softened the ice as much as the weather forecasters anticipated.

Nevertheless, the decision put Dr. Keech out on a thawing limb. His apparently was the only school system in the state that closed yesterday. His system has also missed more days -- eight -- than any other. Since students and teachers have only had three full days of school since they returned from winter break on Jan. 3, there may even be December holiday decorations still hanging around in some classrooms.

Dr. Keech defended his Sunday call. "I don't put yellow buses on slippery icy roads," he said. But in some northern portions, the roads may remain slippery for several more days. Even Harford's neighbor to the northeast, Cecil County, decided that waiting for optimal conditions was outweighed by the need to get students back into the classroom after an unscheduled week off from school.

Harford, like Cecil and other Maryland counties that run to the Mason-Dixon Line, no doubt have some rougher weather in their northern reaches. If there was ever talk of splitting the county into northern and southern districts for purposes of weather closings, maybe this month's experience will accelerate that -- similar to the way Baltimore County occasionally closes schools just in its northern Hereford area. The Harford school calendar will extend deeper into mid-June to make up these missed days, but because the system started before Labor Day this year, the closing won't be much later than in past years.

Despite the inconveniences, no one, of course, quibbled with the closing of schools during last week's historic cold snap. By this week, though, the students needed to be back in school and their parents needed for them to be back in school. The decision on closing Harford schools yesterday probably should have taken into greater account the unusual disruption that education in the county had already endured.

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