Five-Day Waiver Possible For County Schools

NEWARK – Worcester County Public Schools lost another day to inclement weather yesterday, seemingly nudging the end of the school year back further toward the end of June, but state officials this week approved a mechanism to provide some relief from closures during one of the worst winters in recent memory.

County schools were closed yesterday as the front edge of a major winter storm brushed by adding an inch or so of new snow on a region pounded by several similar storms already this year. Yesterday’s closure was the 10th of the year related to weather, far exceeding the three inclement weather days built into the school calendar.

On Tuesday, the State Board of Education approved a limited waiver process for school districts across Maryland. School systems may now request a waiver for up to five days from the required 180-day instructional calendar. The measure authorized State Superintendent Dr. Nancy Grasmick to approve requests from local school system superintendents to make the necessary adjustments in their school calendars.

With just three inclement weather days built into the calendar, the number of days that need to be made up now stands at seven and counting, depending on what happened overnight with this most recent storm.

At its regular February meeting last week, the Worcester Board of Education agreed to shorten the spring break surrounding Easter by about two days, making Thursday, April 1, originally scheduled as a teacher in-service day, a half day, and making Tuesday, April 6, originally scheduled as on off day on the back end of spring break, a full school day.

The measure got two days back and moved the last day of school, originally scheduled for June 15, to June 21. Of course, much has changed since the county school board made the adjustments. This week, the state school board authorized a waiver of as many as five days from the 180-day instructional calendar, providing potential relief from a late June closure date, which, if sought and approved, could move the end of the school year in Worcester back closer to the original June 15 date, despite the growing number of closures.

Worcester Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes said on Wednesday the county school board will decide at its March meeting whether to request any or all of the five days allowed by the amended waiver process. Andes said the state superintendent would likely approve a requested waiver if the local school system has exhibited an effort to find other days in the calendar to make up for closures.

“We haven’t made any decisions about how many days to request a waiver for and the school board will take up the issue at the March meeting,” he said. “In the forward thinking of the board, we have already made a decision to shorten spring break with those two days in April, so Worcester County has demonstrated it is making an effort to meet the 180-day requirement without the benefit of a waiver.”

Andes said the effort to work out its calendar issues could bode well for the county when it comes down to asking for a five-day waiver.

“They like to see that you are at least making an effort to work it out,” he said. “Requesting a waiver for as many as five days should be a measure of last resort, but we will decide just how many days to ask for without pushing the end of the year back too far.”

For her part, Grasmick urged local school boards and superintendents to work to find a way to get close to the required 180 days of instruction while acknowledging the circumstances created by the unusually harsh winter makes meeting the requirement difficult.

“We believe that 180 instructional days is a bare minimum in a competitive world where some nations keep students in school for 220 days or more,” she said. “At the same time, we recognize that severe weather conditions this year have been unprecedented and the State Board believes that some flexibility must be granted.”

Despite the relaxed school closure policy, the state does not have the option to delay the Maryland School Assessments (MSA) scheduled to begin March 8. However, state school officials said this week they would ask the U.S. Department of Education for special flexibility to maintain the same scoring targets that were in place for 2009, citing the number of days dedicated to preparation for the rigorous exams that have been lost thus far.

School systems across the country are required to make annual progress on the exams with the target of having all students proficient by 2014. However, because of the number of school closures this year, state officials will seek a waiver holding students across Maryland to 2009 standards, with the caveat being the difference would have to be made up over the following years.

“We’ve had nine fewer days to prepare for these tests, which is creating significant challenges for our schools, our students and our teachers,” said Andes. “We have 110 days from the day we start school until the day the tests are completed. If we lose 10 days, that’s about 10 percent less than we normally have to prepare for these important tests.”

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