As the heat index crept toward the 90-degree mark Tuesday morning, Baltimore city social studies teacher Ejaz Baluch watched his students at ConneXions School for the Arts begin to fade.
By 11 a.m., when the heat index had risen to 93 degrees, the school called the system's headquarters to see if it would be exercising its longstanding policy to dismiss school if the index reached 90 degrees by 11 a.m.
Teachers across the city began to complain from their sweltering classrooms after they hadn't heard from the school system by midafternoon.
According to Baluch, who urged parents and educators to call city school headquarters, the answers from North Avenue varied: administrators were told that the threshold was 95 degrees by 11 a.m.; another was told it was 10 a.m. Parents were told it was 95 degrees by noon; students who called were told that dismissal was based on temperature readings at BWI, rather than the Inner Harbor.
“There's a lot of confusion about what the policy is, because there's been a widespread knowledge that this was it," Baluch said. "So it came to a surprise to everyone that this may not be the policy after all. Nobody seemed to have been notified that it had changed, and it was done not with public knowledge."
Turns out, city school officials confirmed Wednesday that the system stopped following the "90-degree by 11 a.m." guideline three years ago.
Now, according to city schools spokeswoman Edie House-Foster, those decisions are made by city schools CEO Andres Alonso, or his designee.
"There's no longer a magic number," said House-Foster, adding that staff would have had to stay for the duration of the day because they can work from air-conditioned areas like media centers and cafeterias. “Now, the decision is made purely by the CEO and is based on what’s best for kids.”
According to the school system's 2011-2012 handbook, the CEO does make the decision, but there is in fact a policy that guides it. "A decision to dismiss schools early may be made when weather conditions worsen after schools have opened, or when temperatures exceed 85 degrees by 9 a.m.," the handbook says.
According to weather reports, the temperature was 81 degrees, with a heat index of 87.9 by 9 a.m. By 1 p.m., the temperature reached 97 degrees, and the index had risen to 104.
School officials said that the handbook is being revised to reflect the update policy.
House-Foster said that one city school, Hampden Elementary, was dismissed early because its windows are sealed, allowing for little ventilation in the building after its air conditioning units broke down.
“This just points to why our facilities plan is so important," House-Foster said, referring to the school system's recent campaign to fund more than $2 billion in upgrades to city school buildings.
In the meantime, city educators are bracing for the next two weeks of school, during which they may have to endure temperatures that Baluch called "unbearable."
Baluch said that the heat Tuesday "severely, negatively impacted teaching and learning."
His students hosted a Holocaust survivor, an elderly man who gave his speech in a cramped room with two fans -- one of which Baluch had purchased himself from Wal-mart.
“They were very excited to meet him and ask questions," Baluch said. "They were really trying to be engaged, and you can tell by their faces that this was a great opportunity for learning that had been missed.”