Start school earlier in August? After 14th storm closing this year, district weighs options
In light of 14 school closings this year due to storms — two in the fall, two in the spring, 10 in the winter, will Ridgefield Public Schools consider an earlier first day of school for the 2018-19 school year?
“If this year is an exception, you don’t want to build every year around an exception,” said Fran Walton, chairwoman of the Board of Education Wednesday, May 16. “You just want to make accommodations, be aware of it, and give yourself the maximum flexibility.”
Cancelling school on Thursday, May 17, marked the 14th storm closure of the year, shattering the last record of 10 school closings in both the 2010-11 and 2012-13 school years — a stretch of years where hurricanes battered the northeast in the fall.
Acting Superintendent Robert Miller said that opening earlier in August — the 2018-19 school year is set to begin Thursday, Aug. 30 — would give the school facilities crews less time to prep the buildings for returning students. As it stands currently, the maintenance staff will already be working on a tighter schedule due to the schools closing at the end of June this year.
Miller suggested the schools need to look at the increase in school closures going forward, and how more contingency days can be worked into the school calendar.
“We have not had any discussion on changing next year’s school calendar,” Miller said. “This really is an abnormal year.”
Appealing this week’s cancellations
Peter Yazbak, a spokesperson for the Connecticut Department of Education, told The Press Thursday, May 17, that because schools are prohibited from going past the end of June — and because June 30 falls on a Saturday this year — that Ridgefield will have to apply to the State Board of Education for a waiver to hold school for less than 180 days.
Miller confirmed Thursday that the schools do plan to appeal the two school closings this week with the state. If granted, the appeal will give Ridgefield the necessary number of days in schools for the 2017-18 school year.
Asked whether the state would grant such a request, instead of compelling the district to hold school on Memorial Day, Yazbak said that would be at the discretion of the state school board.
“As a general rule, they have to exhaust all options before being granted a waiver, but that’s up to the [State] Board of Education to decide,” Yazbak said.
A memo from state Education Commissioner Dianna R. Wentzell earlier in March of this year indicated the state would not look favorably on waivers for snow days. Closings for “unexpected emergencies” would be considered, however.
“Connecticut law allows the SBE [State Board of Education] to authorize boards of education to modify the school calendar to have fewer than 180 days of school due to ‘unavoidable emergency,’” the memo states. “Please be advised school closures due to inclement weather generally will not constitute unavoidable emergencies.”
The number of closings this year is out of the ordinary. Data provided by Ridgefield Public Schools on storm closings, which date back to the 2000-01 school year, shows that the number of storm days only broke into the double-digits in the 2010-11 and 2012-13 school year.
Before the 2010-11 school year, the highest number of school closings was six in 2002-03, when the last day of school was pushed back to June 30.
“We’ve had some real doozies,” Miller remarked.
Besides the 14 school closures this year, there have been 6 delayed openings and one early dismissal this year.
In early March, winter storm Quinn brought high winds which felled massive trees, closing school for three days — the longest stretch of the year.
Miller suggested the schools might also look at providing “alternative snow days,” that would let the district skate by with the state if storm closings forced students to be in school for less than the mandated 180 days.
Sometimes called “E-days,” Miller said the alternate snow days might instead be a packet of work that students had to complete by the year’s end, out of concern that not all students would have access to a computer. The packet would not necessarily have to be done on storm-closing days, he explained.
Late June attendance
The school board discussed storm closings and alternative days at its meeting on Monday night, less than 24 hours before the storm struck.
Vice-Chairman Doug Silver wondered how well attended the final day of school would be on Friday, June 29.
“How many students are really going to be in school? How many teachers are going to be in school?” he asked the board.
Miller said Monday night’s meeting that he had heard concerns from a number of parents about the scheduling conflict posed by such a late end to the school year.
“I’ve heard a lot of concerns from parents about camp, about student employment,” he said.
Silver said the alternative “E-days” could be an opportunity to do something different.
“Maybe something really innovative that students do with their families … we have a lot of great resources in town, we have the Aldrich,” he said.
An alternative to traditional snow days would not be an immediate fix — the schools can’t “throw our hands up,” and put the program in place immediately, Miller said.
The alternative days would probably start in the fall of 2021 after consulting with principals across the district, he explained.
Ridgefield is not alone in running up against the last day of June, Miller noted.
While the town has already lost a number of school days due to storms, other districts that were hit much worse in Tuesday night’s storm will likely have to close for much longer than Ridgefield as cleanup efforts continue.
New Fairfield, Brookfield, Newtown, and Southbury were all in the direct path of the storm, and all had 88% or more of their residents lose power, according to Eversource.
“I think the terrain does effect this, you know we have narrow hilly roads where you can’t send a bus, you can only send a van,” Walton said.
Occasionally, the schools will ask students to meet at a central bus stop to be picked up, she said, but they can’t do that if there are wires down in the street.
“The overarching, major thing we take into consideration when making these decisions is the safety of our students and staff,” Miller said. “And, as inconvenient as it is to extend the school year, our primary goal is to ensure the safety of our students and staff.”