Schools, snow and state requirements

Bucks County school districts review options for making up snow days. 

By Jack Firneno Wire Staff Writer

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTOS Snow and ice has forced Bucks County schools to close far more often this winter. However, the Pennsylvania Department mandates that public schools must provide 180 days of instruction each term before June 30.

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTOS Snow and ice has forced Bucks County schools to close far more often this winter. However, the Pennsylvania Department mandates that public schools must provide 180 days of instruction each term before June 30.

This year’s record-breaking winter weather has forced school districts in Bucks County to cancel school for up to 10 days so far this term. And, even as February wraps up, district officials are taking nothing for granted.

“We’re on a countdown to spring,” said Andrea DiDio, head of human resources and public relations for Centennial School District.

But even when the snow melts, many schools still face the problem of fitting in the state’s required number of days — or hours — of instruction.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education mandates that public schools must provide 180 days of instruction each term. “The way the law is, schools have to complete [the requirement] by June 30,” explained Tim Eller, press secretary for the Department.

As of last week, Central Bucks School District declared eight snow days this season. The district often has 184 days of school, more than the state requirement, and wants to keep that number. To do so, it has shortened spring break by a day and is looking into more options, according to community relations director Melanie Sullivan.

Centennial has 10 snow days, and also pulled three days back from its spring break along with opening schools on Presidents Day two weeks ago. Officials are reviewing more options but, “The way our coverage works, we’re running into conflicts with how we can extend days,” said DiDio.

Elsewhere, Council Rock declared nine snow days so far.The district added five days to the end of the school calendar and took four days from spring break. And, Morrisville added three days to the calendar to begin accommodating its six snow days.

“We were very fortunate. When the last ice storm hit we didn’t lose our power, so we’re not in danger of going past the June 30 date,” said Morrisville superintendent Bill Ferrara.

But not all the districts are that lucky, or confident. Central Bucks, for instance, has a larger chance of declaring a snow day than some other districts, simply because it covers a wide area. “The roads vary greatly,” said Sullivan.

Fortunately, the Pennsylvania Department of Education affords some options. One is an Act 80 Exception, where school districts can calculate their time by hours instead of days. Under the provision, a term can last less than 180 days so long as schools provide 900 hours of instruction for grades one through six and 990 for higher grades. Kindergarteners would need only 450 hours.

To apply, districts calculate the number of hours they’d need to add, where they would tack them on — 20 minutes at the end of each day, for example — and how they’d use the time.

Generally, requests are approved, said Eller, “as long as they show meritorious educational programming.” Lunch, study hall or passing between classes, for example, wouldn’t count.

So far, the Department hasn’t received any Exception requests yet. But, Eller continued, it expects some to come in after it distributes reminders to districts this week.

It’s a viable option for schools that are close to the June 30 deadline, especially as many grapple with scheduling around professional development days for staff and vacations that parents already have planned. “We’re not looking to create any conflict,” said DiDio. “We want things to be as easy and seamless as possible.”

Most of the school districts say they’ll allow excused absences for students who already had travel plans for days that were originally designated as off from school but are now on the school calendar. Some, like Central Bucks, allow parents to make the final decision on whether it’s safe to let their child travel to school in inclement weather.

“We worry about our teenage drivers,” said Sullivan. “Our superintendent tries to err on the side of safety.”

But, there is question of the effect an absence has on a student’s education versus a snow day. Sarah Ulrich, Ed.D., the director of teacher certification programs and an associate clinical professor at Drexel University, pointed to research from Harvard University.

There, a recent study suggested that declaring a snow day is advantageous because the entire school must have a catch-up day, where individual students who are absent don’t get the same opportunity.

Research on the subject is still “widely inconsistent,” noted Ulrich in an email. But, “There is solid data that the extended learning time [extra minutes added to a school day] does have a positive impact, particularly on the schools with the greatest challenges, where students are underperforming over time.”

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTOS This winter's record-breaking winter weather has forced school districts in Bucks County to cancel school for up to 10 days so far this term.

JACK FIRNENO / WIRE PHOTOS This winter’s record-breaking winter weather has forced school districts in Bucks County to cancel school for up to 10 days so far this term.

Ulrich also suggested “cyber snow days” as an “interesting concept that I believe more school districts might consider in the future.”

Near Bucks County, Bonner-Prendergast Catholic High School in Drexel Hill avoided at least one snow day this year by having teachers send lessons and assignments electronically to students on Feb. 13. Teachers were available online if students had questions, and their assignments were due at 5 p.m. that night.

“We read an article from an archdiocese school in Pittsburgh that did it,” said Andrea Fitti, the assistant principal for academic affairs “When the snow got bad, we decided to try it out.”

For now, cyber snow days are not permissible for public schools. But, according to Eller, “The department has been speaking with schools to find a way for this to be an option.”

For Bonner-Prendergast, said Fitti, the day was a success partly due to existing infrastructure: teachers and students already use web portals and services to post and check grades and assignments. The school also issues each student an iPad at the beginning of the year.

Teachers were still grading assignments by press time, and the school was working out exceptions for students who didn’t have Internet access on that day. Still, Fitti estimated “92- to 98-percent participation” from students.

“The students were very receptive and accepting of trying something new,” she said.

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