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Parents scramble on heat-related half school day

On a day that was sweltering even before noon, a line of minivans pulled up outside Gladwyne Elementary School three hours ahead of schedule to ferry children home from stifling classrooms yesterday.

On a day that was sweltering even before noon, a line of minivans pulled up outside Gladwyne Elementary School three hours ahead of schedule to ferry children home from stifling classrooms yesterday.

Despite $4-a-gallon gasoline, all the parents kept their engines idling and air conditioners going, even those who had their sliding van doors open to greet their children.

"I didn't want him to take the bus," said Aly Silverman, waiting in a maroon van for first grader Will to appear amid the river of children coming through the school doors. "It would've been another half-hour or so of the heat."

Yesterday's soaring temperatures prompted schools across the region to close early, and sent parents scrambling to pick up children or make other arrangements. Some schools, especially those with air-conditioning, kept to normal schedules.

With record-breaking heat forecast for today, most schools will repeat the drill today.

Many said it was the first time they could remember schools' closing early due to heat.

"I have five children," crossing guard Betty McKeown, 61, of Collingswood, said. "This the first time I've ever seen a school closed for heat."

Yesterday was the first time in at least 25 years that Chester County's West Chester Area School District had sent children home early because of heat.

"It became clear that conditions would be dangerous," spokesman Rob Partridge said.

But the experience is not as novel in Philadelphia public schools, which sent home 167,000 students at midday yesterday. District spokesman Fernando Gallard said heat dismissals happen every few years.

The change in their children's schedules forced some parents to leave work early; others turned to grandparents and friends for help.

Across the street from Haddonfield's Elizabeth Haddon Elementary School, Laura Malcarney had taken home her son, Colin, 7, along with a friend, Max Norton, 7, whose mother was still at work.

"A lot of parents were trying to scramble," she said. "We're all working together to try to get each other's kids and get everyone home."

Caroline Bolletino, 10, and brother Ryan, 8, were met by their grandmother Millie Augelli.

Rhonda Berzanski, a former Floridian, said she initially thought the early dismissal at the Haddonfield school was excessive but later changed her mind. After canceling her afternoon appointments to be with son Nolan, 7, she heard that some students were stationed in particularly hot rooms on the school's upper level.

"If they think kids could be uncomfortable or it could affect their health," she said, "I'm all for it."

The abbreviated school day forced quick alterations to some work schedules. Banker Don J. DiLoreto stood in the Gladwyne Elementary atrium wearing his Wachovia work shirt. He had left a meeting to pick up son Don from a truncated day of third grade, and father and son were headed for an afternoon in the house with Dad finishing his work via telecommuting.

"You're going to be a good coworker today, right?" DiLoreto asked his son. "You stay in your cubicle, and I'll stay in mine."

Schools used a variety of methods to inform parents of the early closings, including e-mail, phone trees, district Web sites, and school cable TV channels.

In Montgomery County's Lower Merion School District, the decision to close early was made Sunday evening.

"We want the children to be in a safe place, and a classroom where it is 95, 100 degrees is probably not that place," spokesman Douglas Young said.

Philadelphia public schools made the call early in the school day after determining that a heat emergency was in effect in the city. There's no magic temperature.

"It's a combination of the forecast and the building temperatures, what the temperature was the day before. Once the heat builds up over several days, it gets worse for the next day," he said.

Principals, he said, were directed to stay in the schools until all children found a way home or were picked up.

In the Bristol Township School District in Bucks County, teachers called emergency contact numbers for students in third grade and below to let caregivers know about the early dismissal. "No principal leaves until all the children leave," spokeswoman Eileen Kelliher said.

Students were celebrating their shortened school day.

"I'll probably just sleep," Nasir Bilaal, 7, said as he left Jackson School in South Philadelphia with his mother, Chinara, and sister Najee, 9.

Elsewhere in South Philadelphia, friends Cameron Woods, 13, Taylor Fluellen, 11, and Regine Prentice, 13, were enjoying their half-day from Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary Schools, where the school year ends tomorrow.

They bought cherry water ices from Joe's Water Ice at Seventh and Christian Streets, and settled down in front of the Free Library of Philadelphia's Charles Santore Branch to enjoy them.

Inside the library, John Crimmins, the children's librarian, said the promise of air-conditioning and the early dismissals had created a larger-than-usual crowd of children in the early afternoon.

Some schools coped by moving students to air-conditioned rooms.

Schools in Chester County's Downingtown Area School District remained open, as did schools in Delaware County's Radnor Township School District. One school there, Ithan Elementary, is only partly cooled, spokeswoman Lisa Williamson said, but students were shifted to rooms with air-conditioning so "no child was in a class without it."

None of Pennsauken's school buildings is air-conditioned, but district officials decided to stick to full days yesterday and today rather than run the risk of having children be without adult supervision.

"It's hard for parents to change their plans on such short notice," Superintendent James Chapman said.

Cherry Hill schools are not fully air-conditioned, but officials there decided to remain open all day yesterday and today.

"Once kids are at school, we don't like to send them home if it hasn't been planned," spokeswoman Susan Bastnagel said. "We don't want to send kids home to empty homes, particularly at the elementary school level."

She added: "The final decision to send a child to school rests with the parents."