Districts, state have options to deal with snow days

lfalce@centredaily.comFebruary 20, 2014 

Harsh winter weather forced more school cancellations in Centre County — and across Pennsylvania — this week. Children might love them, but for some schools, every missed day is just one more that needs to be made up.

“We are frustrated with the weather situation,” said State College Area Superintendent Robert O’Donnell.

Many districts build extra days into their schedules each year, knowing that bad weather will happen and school might have to be canceled for student safety.

In State College, two days were allotted, but so far, six snow days have been called. The extra four days have been tacked on to the end of the school year. Before this week’s two snow days, June 11 was supposed to be the last day of classes.

Philipsburg-Osceola started off with a four-day cushion. Those are now gone.

“We’ve used all our snow days,” Superintendent Gregg Paladina said. “What we’re going to do now is modify the calendar.”

Paladina wants to add in some Act 80 curriculum development days at the end of the year, extending the school year for teachers, but not students. As it stands, the last day of school is June 6.

At Bald Eagle Area, there were no snow days built into the calendar. On Wednesday afternoon, before the board meeting, Superintendent Jeff Miles said he was was sitting with his board president, weighing options for how to finish out the year.

At the moment, graduation will happen June 17.

Penns Valley had no snow days included in their schedule, either. They are also looking at a June 17 graduation after seven snow days.

“We’re looking at all of our options,” said Superintendent Brian Griffith.

State Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks County, and his co-chairman on the House Education Committee, Rep. James Roebuck, D-Philadelphia, said they have been told that many districts are asking their state legislators to intercede with the state Department of Education to grant waivers exempting them from the requisite 180-day school year demanded by law. They sent a letter to Acting Secretary Carolyn C. Dumaresq about the situation.

“We urge the department to utilize the existing authority afforded to it ... to provide school districts with flexibility to meet the 180-day requirement through alternative means,” they wrote.

Districts can petition the Education Department to go by instructional hours instead of calendar days.

“Schools would need to submit a request to the department and demonstrate that students in kindergarten will be offered 450 hours of instruction, students in grades 1-6 (elementary) will be offered 900 hours of instruction, and students in grades 7-12 (secondary) will be offered 990 hours of instruction. Whether a school continues to offer 180 days of instruction or 450/900/990 hours of instruction, it must be completed no later than June 30,” said Education Department press secretary Tim Eller.

If that happened, BEA will be in better shape.

“We are well within the number of hours,” said Miles.

Still, with more than a week of February remaining, plus an unpredictable March looming, he isn’t willing to rest on that possibility.

Both Bald Eagle and State College are considering extending their school years. Penns Valley hasn’t discounted the possibility. At Philipsburg-Osceola, there is at least one more day that might hit the chopping block — the May 16 prom day that students and parents successfully lobbied to have off.

“I really don’t want to do that,” said Paladina. “But the weather has to cooperate, and no one can predict that.”

Clymer and Roebuck, however, don’t want to see waivers granted beyond that hourly option.

“Although extending the school year into late June may be unpopular and require families to postpone a vacation, a scheduled vacation does not warrant a waiver of required instructional days justified in emergency circumstances,” they wrote.

But at least one legislator wants the state to trust the districts to do their job.

“I think we should try to be as flexible as absolutely possible,” said state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township. “School districts are best suited to determine their instructional time. Forcing students to sit in hot school buildings in late June with no air conditioning isn’t going to be conducive to education.”

Corman also acknowledged that summer trips are the least concern for many students. Seniors may be starting summer semester classes or have hard and fast dates to leave for military service. Underclassmen might be taking summer enrichment or required remedial classes.

“There are real consequences to going too late,” he said.

Schools are still worried about other consequences.

“If we have to, we will have more snow days,” said Miles. “We are worried about safety first.”

Follow Lori Falce on Twitter @LoriFalce.

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