With snow days piling up, schools scrambling to meet 180-day minimum

Scenes like this one at Pottstown Middle School, with crews clearing the steps of snow, have become more common than regular school days this winter. (Kevin Hoffman/21st-CenturyMedia)
Students and teachers leave Franklin Elementary school bundled up for the walk home on one of the increasingly rare days this winter when weather did not force the delay or closing of school. (Kevin Hoffman/21st-CenturyMedia)

In addition to record snowfalls, one thing this wild winter has generated is a bumper crop of school snow days.

And even though the snow may not be done with us yet, school districts around the area and across the state are already wrestling with the problem of how to provide the legally required 180 days of school without keeping kids in school into July.

Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, confirmed that districts across the state have been contacting his department looking for options.

He also confirmed that Acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq has determined one option is off the table — she does not have the legal authority to waive the requirement that a public school district provide 180 days of instruction in a school year because of excess snow.

“Although the Secretary of Education has the discretionary power to grant waivers to the 180 day requirement due to emergency closings, waivers will only be granted as a measure of last resort,” according to the PDE web site.

Unfortunately, “severe weather is not considered an emergency for granting a waiver to the 180-day requirement” under Pennsylvania Statutes, according to a release from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

That has left school districts scrambling to back-fill their calendars to make up for the lost days.

Many school districts, such as Pottstown, Phoenixville, Spring-Ford and Owen J. Roberts, have eliminated or plan to eliminate the vacation days that surround the Easter holiday and some, such as hard-hit OJR and Spring-Ford, already required students to come to school on President’s Day.

Others are converting parent-teacher conference days into classroom days. And still others are still considering their options.

Phoenixville Area School District is adding days, including a June 7 make-up day for seniors.

Any additional snow days will come from the spring break before Easter or a scheduled in-service day May 20, according to Superintendent Alan Fegley.

“We’ll just go later,” Fegley said Thursday. “We’re going until June 13 now.”

“Right now, a number of us believe that if we can show that we can get enough days in before June 30,” the department of education “is not going to cut us a break,” he added.

One option that some nearby districts, like Pottstown, are considering, is asking the department of education to re-classify certain days as “Act 80” days, provisions of which allow for non-student days to be re-classified as days benefitting students.

Eller said the department expects other districts to make similar requests.

Another approach is to count hours instead of days.

To meet that minimum, school districts may be required to extend the school days, the state Department of Education release said, and some districts are discussing whether they can meet the hourly requirements by starting the school day earlier, adding hours to the end of it, or a combination of both.

“Schools could request approval from the department under Section 1504 of the Public School Code to calculate by the instructional hour in lieu of 180 days,” Eller wrote in response to questions from 21st Century Media.

“To do this, schools would need to demonstrate to the department that they will provide 450 hours for kindergarten, 900 hours for grades 1-6 and 990 hours for grades 7-12. These hours are the equivalent of 180 days,” he wrote.

Another option might be made available through technology.

Speaking on the possibility of using electronic means to conduct school, Fegley said he’d been a part of setting something up years ago during an influenza outbreak which included video-conferencing teachers to their students.

He said it’s possible but not necessarily advisable to use electronic schooling methods on a snow day.

“You don’t use that for one day,” Fegley said. “You do it for one week, two weeks.”

In terms of other possible solutions, “I have no suggestions,” Fegley said. “As long as we know the clear guidelines of what we need to do, so many hours and so many days (we can plan around it).”

Although they know it may have an impact, all area superintendents asked said the only factor considered when deciding whether to call a snow day is safety. Districts are also looking ahead to next winter and trying to decide what’s appropriate.

“Pre-planning” is key when dealing with calendars and snow, according to Fegley, who felt three snow days was the right amount.

Whatever local districts decide for next year, one thing is certain. This school year is shaping up to be a long one for students and teachers.