Our View | State should help schools through scheduling storm

February 22, 2014 

Students leave Radio Park Elementary School for an early dismissal because of snow on Friday. State College is considering increasing the classroom time for its elementary school students, which would put the district more in line with others in the county.

CHRISTOPHER WEDDLE — CDT photo Buy Photo

Kids may enjoy snow days, but those situations create headaches for parents and school officials.

We support a proposal urging the state Department of Education to allow some flexibility for school districts as they seek ways to make up for lost class time caused by this winter’s extreme cold and heavy snow.

“We’re looking at all of our options,” Penns Valley Superintendent Brian Griffith told the CDT, reflecting a concern across the county and beyond.

Two state House members from the southeast corner of the state sent a letter to Carolyn Dumaresq, acting education secretary, requesting exemptions to the 180-day requirement on which all Pennsylvania schools operate.

Bucks County Republican Paul Clymer and Philadelphia Democrat James Roebuck, who co-chair the House Education Committee, said the department could find “alternative means” to ensure that youngsters don’t miss out on critical learning experiences.

The issue is especially important for seniors whose graduation dates could be delayed, with military commitments or summer entry to college or other higher education opportunities looming.

One option schools may utilize is petitioning the Department of Education to show that while days at school may fall short of that 180 mark, class hours do meet required levels, which vary by age and grade levels.

Given the weather this year, the state should give full consideration to any petitions it receives.

Another option we find compelling is the use of “virtual snow days,” meaning students would complete some studies online.

St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy, in Boalsburg, offers its students a Web-based option for getting in the time and lessons.

“Our students must check in with their homeroom teachers in the morning, and then they begin their assignments for the day, interacting with their various subject teachers through our course-management software,” F. Christopher Chirieleison, principal at St. Joseph’s, told the CDT in an email.

Speaking last week to business leaders in Lancaster County, Dumaresq said “virtual snow days” are not practical in all school districts because access to technology varies widely. But media reports show she suggested this digital approach could become a viable option in the future, provided the system serves all students, including those with special needs.

In the meantime, the state and public schools must find answers for this year.

The area’s earliest graduation date is June 6 at Philipsburg-Osceola. The school year officially ends June 30.

Using course hours to bridge the gap caused by days missed due to weather seems a reasonable approach to an unusual situation.

Bald Eagle Area Superintendent Jeff Miles said his district is “well within the number of hours” it would need.

Of course, winter is not over.

Griffith, Miles and other school officials will face additional moments when they are forced to make difficult decisions about whether to close their schools due to weather, to open late, or to run on time.

The Tyrone Area district had an unfortunate mess on its hands Wednesday, when the decision was made to bring students to school, but roads proved too treacherous and schools were closed by midmorning. Some students were stranded on buses that were forced to pull over because of icy conditions.

Tyrone Superintendent Cathy Harlow went to Facebook to talk with parents afterward.

“Weather conditions deteriorated quickly after we began picking up students, to a point where it was no longer safe for our buses to continue on their routes,” she wrote. “At that point, we instructed all buses to find a safe location to pull off of the road. We continued to monitor road conditions and remained in contact with all buses. Once it was determined it was safe to proceed, drivers were directed to return students to their homes as safely as possible. During this event, numerous calls were made to parents in an effort to keep families informed of the situation. Thankfully, all students were returned home safely.”

Parents were naturally distressed by those events.

That’s why we continue to support decisions that keep children, teachers and others off potentially dangerous roadways and out of the bitter cold, even if scheduling subsequently becomes a challenge. We’re sure parents, when informed of a closure or delay, understand and accept the inconvenience if their youngsters are kept safe.

“All of us are trying to make the best decisions we can with the information we have,” Griffith said.

That means protecting students while making sure their learning is not compromised.

The state should now make the best decision, too, and provide flexibility to help districts with both sides of that important mission.

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