Snow Forces School Calendar Changes

Snow Forces School Calendar Changes

Students say additional days don’t make up for lost instruction.

Whether for drama classes or science fairs, Arlington students are realizing that snow days put an end to more than just school day drudgery, and school officials are learning to schedule make-up days for make-up days.

Even one missed day can hurt student activities, and Arlington Public Schools are adjusting to six so far this winter. The changes put pressure on students like Roxanne Stachowski, a Yorktown High School student in the cast of the school’s spring play.

“The play has to go on at the end of February no matter how many snow days you have,” she said.

School officials planned for two snow days in the original calendar for this year, and had contingency plans for three more school days that meant making up school on the Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day. More than five snow days means extending the school year further into June.

Those plans made sense over the last two years, when Arlington students didn’t miss a single day due to inclement weather.

But this year was a different story even before this weekend’s storm – school officials had already decided to cancel four days of class, meaning students were already counting on two make-up days.

The first was set for Presidents’ Day, Monday, Feb. 17, but now officials will have to schedule a make-up day for the make-up day.

Monday’s cancellation represented vindication for students who felt cheated by school officials’ decision to take away the holiday. “It does seem like sweet justice,” said Amy Gray, a Yorktown junior.

Stachowski said students have good reasons for objecting to the loss of holidays. Presidents’ Day and Memorial Day create three-day weekends that many students can use to visit colleges. Now in her junior year, Stachowski is feeling the pressure to decide to which colleges she should apply.

This weekend she had planned to visit the University of Virginia, but canceled those plans even before the snow storm, because she was expecting to be in school Monday.

FEW OPTIONS REMAIN for dealing with missed days, though. State regulations require local jurisdictions to plan for 180 instructional days, so cancellations have to be made up in one way or another. High school seniors get an exception, because graduation dates, scheduled years in advance, cannot be changed.

As snow days pile up, the school year extends farther into the summer, at times affecting families who plan vacations in the first few weeks of summer break. Longer school years mean losses in vacation revenue for the state, along with changing expenses for school systems.

To minimize that effect, officials have proposed creative solutions in the past. Following the blizzard of 1996, officials decided to extend the school day, adding time onto each day rather than tack additional days onto the end of the year. In Loudoun County, those types of plans and a pre-Labor Day start to the school year mean that school officials can weather five snow days before worrying about make-ups.

As of press time, school officials could not be reached for comment on whether they would consider a similar solution this year, but some students and parents say they would recommend against it. “I don’t think it’s an ideal solution at all,” said Mary Bell, Washington-Lee High School PTA President.

Elementary school children barely have the attention span for a regular school day, she said, so extending the day puts a strain on the children and on the teachers responsible for keeping them under control. “With high school kids, a couple extra minutes per class I don’t think are going to be that productive,” she said.

But the current solution isn’t much better she said. “Adding days at the end of the year is not that productive either,” Bell said, “because all those high stakes tests have already taken place.”

INDEED, TESTING complicates the issue of makeup days. Teachers can decide to push back the dates of final exams in some classes, but state-mandated Standards of Learning tests mark the unofficial end of instruction, some students say.

Dates for those tests can’t be pushed back, regardless of how many snow days are missed. So instructional days tacked on after SOLs amount to a waste of time. “Finals are over, SOLs are over, AP exams are over. Who wants to work? There’s nothing to work for,” said Stachowski.

Extra days at the end of the year end up being social events for many students, who use the time to sign yearbooks and make plans for the summer. “It’s just an excuse to see friends,” said Sue Schaller, a Yorktown junior.

Schaller takes several Advanced Placement classes, so AP exams mark the end of real schoolwork. AP test schedules, like the SOLs, can’t be changed by local school districts, so missing instructional days during the middle of the year means students will have less time to prepare.

“It’s always exciting to have a snow day, although I am a little bit concerned about my AP classes,” said Gray, who takes AP English, History and Psychology.

Even AP teachers are feeling the crunch, Schaller said. “I think they’re getting a little worried,” she said, noting that the workload in several of her classes has begun increasing despite the loss of instructional time.

Gray said extending the school day to avoid adding extra days at the end of the year would be enjoyable, but ultimately it wouldn’t help minimize the loss of instruction. “I would love if they did that, just because it would be so insignificant, but I think it gets ridiculous at that point,” she said. “It’s obviously just political at that point.”

MAKING UP INSTRUCTION is the ultimate goal, and the ultimate difficulty when it comes to rescheduling.

Stachowski said it’s easier to adjust in English and history courses, because students can read books at home even if they miss classroom discussion. But she said she’s feeling pressure in math and science classes, where it’s difficult to complete homework and projects without sufficient instruction time.

Gray says rescheduling spells problems even months down the road. It’s a common practice in AP classes to finish instruction several days before the exam, to give students in-class time to review, but some teachers have already warned students that winter school cancellations could rule out the possibility for review in the spring.

Gray is hoping her teachers will offer after-school or Saturday review sessions, but isn’t counting on it. “[Teachers] obviously wouldn’t be getting paid for that, so it would just be out of their good will,” she said.

Looking ahead to the possibility of a longer school year, Gray said she isn’t worried. “It’s not a big deal if they add to the end, because I know that the AP classes are just going to be watching movies,” she said.