As snow days add up, how do schools cope?

A student walked toward a bus shelter near Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday morning at the University of Kentucky.
A student walked toward a bus shelter near Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday morning at the University of Kentucky. Herald-Leader

Given Kentucky's recent and continuing battle with the forces of punishing cold, the question on the minds of many is: With all the snow days being racked up by public schools, how will districts finish before the state's broiling summer begins?

As of Friday, Fayette County Public Schools had accumulated seven snow days — four of them last week. Students did not attend school Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which meant an entire week out of class.

State law requires that districts provide no less than the equivalent of 177 six-hour instructional days, or 1,062 hours, during the 2013-14 school year. The school calendar is required to include makeup days equal to the greatest number of days missed systemwide in the school district over the preceding five school years.

Districts may structure their provisions for snow days in different ways. They might schedule "early dismissal" days that could later be converted to a full day, giving them a three-hour cushion with which to work. They might also add days off into the scheduled school year that could later be canceled. They can also tack on extra days beyond the planned last day of classes.

Some districts with difficult roads must be more creative with their schedules: In Floyd County, May 8 was targeted as the last day of school, but the calendar allows for school to be extended more than six more weeks, up to June 20, for weather make-up days.

Of the Fayette County district's strategy to schedule for minimal snow day impact, spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said: "You hope for a good winter, and you hope to let kids out as early as possible."

Nonetheless, she said, weather make-up days are identified when the school calendar is adopted more than a year in advance. For 2013-14, make-up days scheduled so far are April 25, May 29 and 30 and June 2 to 5. As of Friday, June 5 was the last day of school.

June 6 and the week of June 9 to 13 remain on the table as possible additional make-up days, given future weather conditions. (High school graduation dates are not set until early spring after the threat of bad weather has passed and all make-up days have been announced.)

Deffendall said that it's difficult to please everyone. "The perfect school calendar differs for every single person and every single family," she said.

There's also the problem of lack of continuity in the classroom when students are out several days in a row.

Glendover Elementary School principal Cathy Fine said that the many snow days raise concerns about lost instructional time.

"The snow days hit us at an awkward time because kids have already been off for winter break and we barely got up and rolling when it hit us again. ... Anytime there is a big break there is always a transitional period when kids have to get back in school thinking mode."

Extracurricular activities also took a hit.

The Kentucky High School Journalism Association was expecting 18 schools and 300 students and teachers to attend its meeting this week at Lexington's Hyatt Regency Hotel. Then, the cold weather bludgeoned the state.

David Greer, administrator of the association, said that the convention wound up with nine schools and 135 students. "Our attendance took a big hit, though I certainly understand why they could not go," Greer said.

Statewide, there is a provision for districts that miss 20 or more days to apply for "disaster days" with the state commissioner of education — but only after the district has scheduled to make up at least the first 20 days missed.

There is also a provision for five "emergency hours" that districts can use for delayed openings or early releases; those don't have to be made up.

Any changes to state regulations for the harsh winter of 2013-14 would have to come from the General Assembly, which could authorize the state's education commissioner, Terry Holliday, to use waiver authority for unanticipated hardships.

Deffendall said that going back to the 2000-01 school year, the earliest records she had, the most days of school missed in Fayette County was nine in 2002-03, followed by eight in 2008-09. Those were also the years that had the most consecutive snow days, Deffendall said.

During 2002-03, a year in which Fayette County suffered a paralyzing ice storm, schools were closed for four consecutive days: Feb. 18 to 21. In 2008-09, school was closed for five consecutive days, Jan. 26 to 30.

Outside Lexington, Jessamine County Public Schools announced on Twitter on Friday that the school system's "early-release days" — Jan. 29, Feb. 26 and April 23 — will be full instructional days. The last day of school in Jessamine is still scheduled to be June 4.

Jessamine County public schools' Facebook page explained the snow day dilemma for school systems: "Kentucky mandates a minimum number of days for student instruction, (but) in times of an inordinate amount of snow days, the state begins to look not at the number of days, but at the amount of instructional time our students received. By extending these three days, we gain nine hours of instructional time. If the weathermen are correct, and this is only the beginning of what's to come, adding these nine hours puts us in a place where forgiveness of days from the governor is a possibility."

Kerri Richardson, a spokesman for Gov. Steve Beshear, said, "It doesn't appear that the governor has the authority to intervene unilaterally in snow days."

In Scott County, 11 days had been missed as of Friday. The school system's website has posted a calendar saying that the original last day of classes was to have been May 16, but depending on snow days, that could be extended as far as June 9.

Madison County Public Schools' website on Friday said that students had missed eight days of school so far. The district built in time for four snow days and is now making adjustments to its calendar. Students will attend school on Presidents' Day, Feb. 17, and the end of school has been shifted from May 23 to May 29.

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