Monday, December 10, 2018

There are better ways for schools to deal with "snow days"

This winter has had its moments and we aren’t even to the halfway point of December. It looks like it will be a long and eventful winter – there are three-and-a-half maybe even four months of snowstorms and biting arctic temperatures ahead of us. This looks like it will be the kind of winter in which school districts will burn through their allotted snow days. If you believe the forecast in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it’s a certainty.  

The hand-wringing that goes into deciding whether or not to close schools weighs heavily on superintendents when hearing forecasts or waking up to an impressive snowfall, especially when those days are many: Do you shortchange kids on the full education that they deserve? Do you risk their safety on sloppy roads? Do you roll the dice when it comes to state funding?

Unfortunately, too often the third question carries more weight than the first two because antiquated and inflexible state laws can tie the purse strings for school districts. 

New York requires that schools have 180 days of session, which can include Regents exams and up to 4 days of Superintendent’s Conferences. The state allows for some extraordinary circumstances (like winter’s fury) and permits 5 days off. But, if a district ends up having 175 days or less, for every day missed the State Education Department will cut back on funding to that district at a 1/180th of its total aid allotment.

1/180th doesn’t seem like some great amount until you put it into perspective. My district, Roy-Hart, received $10.37 million in state aid last year. Just one day of lost aid is nearly $57,700. That’s a lot, but the much larger Lockport schools received $39.7 million and one day too many lost there is almost $220,600.

How do you make that funding loss up? You can’t. And, that’s just one day. What would happen if a real honest-to-goodness blizzard on the scale of ‘77’s socked everyone in? You can see why administrators fret about snow days and why, later in the winter, they end up playing Russian roulette with students’ safety.

It shouldn’t be that way. But it is, and it’s compounded by state law that doesn’t allow Saturday instruction or classes on holidays (does anybody really need President’s Day or Columbus Day off?) to count towards the 180 days.

Why not change that and give districts the power to make up snow days so our kids get the education coming to them (the school year is already too short as it is if you want to compete in the global economy) while satisfying the state’s 180 day requirement?

New York lawmakers need only look south for a little inspiration. Often feeling the same winter blues we do and battling similarly-arcane laws, Pennsylvania’s House Education Committee has routinely passed legislation that would allow school districts to have classes on Saturdays. Pennsylvania’s full House never had any interest in passing that endeavor, though. Too bad.

We could try, though. It’s simple. Change the rules. Allow for Saturday classes. Children will learn what they would have missed from the snow day and property owners won’t feel a pinch when the next tax bill comes around.

It will be a good lesson learned for the kids, too: Out in the Real World, you have to occasionally – if not regularly – work Saturdays. Give them a taste of that.

The Saturday idea isn’t the only way that the Commonwealth has looked to squash norms and ensure their customers get what’s coming to them. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Education launched a pilot program at its 500 districts that’s definitely something out of this century.

For up to 5 days a year districts can use "non-traditional educational delivery methods" like distance learning or cyber-school to teach students. So, on the days that the campus is closed to students due to snow, their teachers would deliver their lessons to their students as if it were a normal day.

There are a lot of infrastructure issues to address with this: not all families have high-speed internet access (although they do have smartphones) and most schools aren’t prepared to administer this (although even the most rudimentary laptops can handle such tasks). But, it is something to consider for the future and develop in baby steps. 

Saturdays? Distance learning? It’s 2018, not 1968 -- we need to think outside the box, especially if the tried-and-true methods regulating our educational system put the health and safety of kids (and their taxpaying parents’ pocketbooks) at risk. 

From the 10 December 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers

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