Schools, parents grapple with snow days and changing school calendars

News-DemocratFebruary 7, 2014 

Every school district is running out of snow days, and with weeks of winter left to the season, officials are looking for alternatives to extending the school year.

Most districts have applied or will apply for "Act of God" waivers, which must be approved by the regional superintendent and state superintendent of schools. The waiver allows the district not to make up that day, without loss of state aid. In order to qualify, districts must use up all the days they build into the calendar, at a minimum of five days.

But with many districts with seven to nine snow days, school leaders looking for a way to make up the instructional time, too.

"Most everyone's looking for alternatives at this point," said Bob Daiber, Madison County regional superintendent. "They are only taking Act of God days if they've exhausted their options of adding in attendance days."

Those options include canceling holidays such as Presidents Day, Casimir Pulaski Day, school improvement days and even spring break.

Each district will have different plans. Some districts have union contracts that specify holidays; others simply have a total number of days in which school will be in session.

For example:

* Highland District 5 has used seven emergency days, five of which were scheduled. The district is canceling holidays on Feb. 17 and April 21 to make up for the two extra days, but if any futher snow days occur, Superintendent Mike Sutton said they would apply for Act of God days.

* Edwardsville District 7 has used nine emergency days, five of which were built into the calendar. The school board will vote Monday whether to hold school on Casimir Pulaski Day and cancel a teacher institute day on March 21.

* O'Fallon High School will apply for two Act of God days and will hold school on Casimir Pulaski Day and April 17, which was previously a day of spring break, according to Superintendent Darcy Benway.

* Triad District 2 will apply for three Act of God days, but does not plan to cancel holidays. "I believe the teachers and administration are finding other ways to make up for the loss of instructional time," said Superintendent Leigh Lewis.

* East St. Louis District 189 has already applied for three Act of God days, but has not decided whether to cancel holidays, according to spokeswoman Kim Roberson.

* Collinsville Unit 10 has lost seven days and has two Act of God days approved so far. But Superintendent Bob Green said the district cannot cancel holidays for makeup days due to union contracts.

* Belleville 201 is canceling planned holidays for Feb. 27-28, Casimir Pulaski Day on March 3 and March 26 will no longer be a half day. If there is another snow day, Belleville East and West students will attend on April 17, which is currently a planned holiday.

* Other districts, such as Granite City and Belleville 118, are still deciding whether to add on more days at the end of the year or fill in holidays.

"The Act of God days are forgiven days because of something you can't help, but there will be a limit at which point districts will say, 'We can't apply for any more of these, the kids need instruction,'" Daiber said. "In all honesty, everybody wants to be in school."

St. Clair County Superintendent Susan Sarfaty agreed. "The biggest concern is that students are missing out on learning opportunities," Sarfaty said. "Not only are they missing (class time), they're missing out on the continuity of that learning."

Not everyone is pleased with the options schools are considering. Some parents pointed out that they made plans based on the calendars. Edwardsville District 7 had sent a letter to parents on Jan. 16 with an amended calendar, but now that calendar may change again, as the school board will vote next week whether to hold school on previously scheduled holidays.

Parent Tami White of Glen Carbon said she believes there have been good reasons for the snow days and doesn't mind days being added back in, but does have a problem with last-minute changes to the calendar. Her family had made plans to travel for the three-day weekend on March 21-23, and their reservations are non-refundable.

"Nowhere in (the Jan. 16 letter) did it indicate that we would suddenly have days taken away and used for makeup days," she said. "I have refused to pull my kids out of school for family trips, and I will stick by that. I just wish the district would have stuck by their earlier decision."

For parent Lyndsey Schmidt of Belleville, the important thing is to make up the days, whether it's by canceling holidays or extending the school year, rather than get a state waiver. Her kids attend Belleville East High School.

"Getting missed days 'forgiven' reduces the amount of learning our kids need to be successful in life," Schmidt said. "In the end, kids need to be in school for the required number of days."

Daiber said schools are also looking at ways to maximize the remaining instructional time. School assemblies and events during the school day will be cut, along with field trips or things like a class-ring presentation during class time. "When this weather gets straightened out, they'll be at a rigorous schedule with no classes interrupted," Daiber said.

One of the issues for schools is the ISAT: the annual state test administered in grades K-8 can only be taken March 3-14, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. The PSAE high-school test is taken later in the spring. The districts can move the test dates they'd set -- and some are considering it -- but only within that window, and no later than March 14.

Worse: the winter isn't over yet.

"We don't know how severe the rest of the weather is going to be," Daiber said. "But in the end, you need to have 180 days in your calendar ... From my seat, the snow days are not fun. We're ready for everyone to go back and this issue to go away. But Mother Nature will decide that."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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