By Matt Murphy
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE — As winter’s wrath wreaks havoc for commuters, businesses and retail, school administrators are also struggling to cope with the fallout of record-setting snowfall, poring over calendars to find days before July to make up for lost classroom time.
While the immediate situation may require cancelation of religious holidays, professional development days for teachers or even April vacation, Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester has urged superintendents to also think about the future.
In a memo from his office, Chester encouraged school officials in cities and towns to consider schedules that can accommodate more severe winters and either start before Labor Day, if they don’t already, or consolidate February and April vacations into one week in March.
Some students are experiencing their second full week off from classes after snow and concerns about roofs and other building issues prompted leaders in districts like Somerville to cancel school for the entire week before February vacation.
Chester late last week put out an advisory for school administrators, informing them that they should not expect a blanket waiver from the state on the 180-day requirement for schools, which also requires 900 hours for elementary schools and 990 hours in secondary schools.
“Although the commissioner has the authority to reduce the student learning time requirements in extraordinary circumstances, that has always been a last resort,” Chester wrote in his last weekly update. “Districts should be making a good faith effort to adjust school calendars for the balance of the year.”
Schools that started class after Labor Day will have the most trouble adjusting their schedules to accommodate for snow days this winter, according to education officials. Schools must build in five extra days into their schedule to accommodate snow days, but most schools in eastern Massachusetts have already lost at least six to eight days of school, while districts in western Massachusetts have lost fewer.
“It is providing some angst at this moment. I’m in no position to say what anyone is going to do, because no one has made decisions yet,” Massachusetts Association of School Committees Executive Director Glenn Koocher said.
Chester expressed some skepticism about the idea of schools adding time in the day to make up for lost classroom hours. He said any plan for extended school days must ensure a “positive impact on student learning,” add a “significant” amount of time to the day, and cover a “minimal” reduction in overall days.
“The Department has not previously approved such arrangements, but if a district has tried to reschedule days, including the use of April vacation and professional development days we are willing to consider proposals for longer days to make up any remaining days,” Chester said.
The commissioner also cautioned educators that “blizzard bags,” or work sent home in advance of an expected storm, will not substitute for classroom hours.
“There is educational value, but it does not necessarily meet the standard for structured learning time. For this approach to count toward the student learning time requirements, school districts must ensure that such work is structured learning time, is substantial, and has appropriate oversight and teacher involvement,” Chester wrote.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Education said that some school districts have made inquiries about a waiver from the learning-time requirement, but said the department has not received any formal applications.
A survey sent Friday to school committee members and superintendents by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents found that most officials who responded found the idea of starting school before Labor Day the most appealing option.
The preliminary raw data from the survey – which was incomplete, but included more than 320 responses – showed that 64.4 percent of respondents work in districts that already start classes before Labor Day.
While over 75 percent of responding school officials said they would most seriously consider moving to a pre-Labor Day school start to better schedule for snow days, consolidating February and April breaks into one week in March registered as the next most popular alternative.
Thirty-five percent of respondents to the survey shared with the News Service said they would seriously consider cutting back on vacations, while 31.5 percent said they would consider eliminating religious or cultural holidays such as Good Friday.
School on Saturday was the least popular option in the survey.
Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Administrators, said at least a half dozen superintendents with whom he has spoken have indicated they are likely to use a combination of April vacation or Saturdays to make up time this year.
Scott noted that cancelling April vacation only nets districts four additional days because the vacation is built around the Patriots Day holiday.
Cancelling both February and April vacations in favor of one week in March would only net three school days because February vacation is also built around a holiday – Presidents Day.
“Right now, we’re at this critical point because if we come back to school and have a continuation of what we’ve had the past few weeks then all bets are off,” Scott said.
Though teacher contracts generally prohibit extending the school year beyond June 30, Scott said the quality of learning time deteriorates the later classes run as students get tired and the weather warms.
“We have a large number who start before Labor Day and those districts aren’t feeling anywhere near as compressed,” Scott said.
Asked whether he felt that Chester and the state could be more flexible to allow school districts to squeeze in learning time without adding days or cutting vacation, Scott said, “He’s totally inflexible, but he’s been clear about that even since we ran into the ice storms a few years ago. He’s doing what he has to do, but we have to come up with some creative ways to say here are some other ways to do this.”
Chester did announce that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would allow some flexibility for scheduling MCAS and PARCC exams, including extensions to the windows for testing and alternate dates for 10th grade English, math, science and technology MCAS tests and grades four, seven and 10 MCAS composition and make-up exams.
Alternate schedules must be requested and approved before the end of February, Chester said.