Thursday, February 5, 2015

How New York schools should handle snow days

This hasn’t been a good winter for school districts across Western New York. Due to “Snovember” and a seemingly endless number of smaller but still significant snowstorms and biting arctic temperatures, cancellations have been the theme of the season. Many districts have used up their snow days…and it’s only the first week of February.

The hand-wringing that goes into deciding whether or not to close school weighs heavily on superintendents when hearing forecasts or waking up to an impressive snowfall: 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 $10.6 million in state aid last year. Just one day of lost aid is $58,980. The much larger Lockport schools received $38.8 million. One day there is $215,680.

How do you make that 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 inspiration. Two weeks ago, while feeling the same winter blues we are and battling similarly-arcane laws, Pennsylvania’s House Education Committee unanimously passed legislation that would allow school districts to have classes on Saturdays. Bill 158 is now up before Pennsylvania’s full House.

It’s that 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.

It could be wishful thinking, though. New York State United Teachers is the most powerful special interest group in the state. Would they see Saturdays in the same way? I doubt it.

But, then again, we might be surprised. Unlike his predecessors, Governor Cuomo isn’t afraid to make a stand against NYSUT. This might be another game of hardball for him. 

It’s kind of odd to find the Commonwealth as a voice of reason and ingenuity when it comes to education, especially with the lofty expectations placed upon New York’s educational system. But, this Saturday idea isn’t the only way that they’ve looked to squash norms and ensure their customers get what’s coming to them.

This year, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is experimenting with 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 handle with this: not all families have internet access (although they do have smartphones), many counties (like Orleans) are nearly devoid of the broadband that would be necessary, and most schools aren’t equipped for this.

But it is something to consider for the future and develop in baby steps. 

From the 09 February 2015 Lockport Union-Sun and Journal

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