Friday, Feb 5–Snow Closures Likely To Extend School Year In June

NEWARK – With two more days off this week because of the major snowstorm last weekend, Worcester County Public Schools have now exhausted their allotted inclement weather closure days, likely tacking any unscheduled closures on the back end of the school year.

Worcester County schools were closed on Monday and Tuesday, the third and fourth unscheduled closures of the year, which now exceeds the school system’s allocation of three days. As a result, the last day of school has been moved back by one day with a lot of winter left and another major storm on the horizon this weekend.

“Our school calendar includes three inclement weather days and with the two closures this week, we’ve now accrued four,” said Barb Witherow, public relations coordinator for the county school system. “Right now, the last day of school has been moved from June 15 to June 16.”

While students and teachers enjoyed a rare two-day holiday this week, coupled with a scheduled two-day break for students last Thursday and Friday because of teacher in-service days, nobody involved likely wants the end of the school year pushed back any further toward the end of June. However, that will happen if there are any more unscheduled closures, particularly since it is just the first week of February with a large chunk of winter still to go.

“The Board of Education continues to review the calendar to see if there are any opportunities to avoid that,” said Witherow. “It remains a strong possibility some decisions will have to be made along the way because we don’t know what Mother Nature is going to bring us.”

State law requires students attend school for 180 days, while teachers and administrators are required to put in 188 days. The state Board of Education has the power to waive unscheduled school closures days, especially if the governor declares a state of emergency, which happened in December. Just before Christmas, a major snowstorm struck much of Maryland, although Worcester County was largely spared, and a state of emergency was declared for two days. The state Board of Education has not waived any school closure days for that storm as of yet, but it remains under consideration.

There is some precedent for waiving school closure days because of a declared state of emergency. In 1996, two days were waived because of a major snowstorm and in 2000, the state board waived a total of four days because of a fall hurricane coupled with two major winter snowstorms.

In Worcester, the two-day closure this week pushed the number of allowable days beyond the three allocated in the school calendar. Schools in the county were closed one day in November because of the epic nor’easter that struck the coastal areas, and one other day was lost during an earlier snow event. Witherow said Worcester can request a waiver specific to the county if the number of closures becomes excessive, although no decision has been made on that.

“Worcester is a little unique because we often have to deal closures related to coastal storms and hurricanes that other parts of the state do no experience,” she said. “It changes the equation for us a little.”

The decision to close schools comes directly from Superintendent Dr. Jon Andes, who confers with the county school system’s Supervisor of Transportation Steve Price, who, in turn, speaks with state and local law enforcement agencies. The final decision applies to the entire county regardless of the situation in certain areas.

“Whatever decision is made applies across the entire county,” said Witherow. “Conditions can be different from one end to the other. While Ocean City or Ocean Pines might appear to be fine, the conditions in the rural areas, or other areas like the Pocomoke Forest, for example, might be entirely different.”

While local students and teachers are keeping a close eye on school closures and the impact on the end of the school year, the resort business community might be more interested in what is going on with the densely populated school districts on the west side of the Chesapeake. Any significant changes to the end of the school year in places like Baltimore and Montgomery counties, for example, could have an impact on the summer season in June.

A spokesman for Baltimore County schools this week said that school district has used just two of its allocated seven days, despite one of the largest snowstorms in recent memory just before Christmas.

Over in Montgomery County, which has 200 schools and 142,000 students, a closure this week pushed the school system past its allocation of four days.

“We’re past our allotment of allocated days now,” said spokesman Chris Cram. “From here on out, we’ll have to find a way to make days up. There are some possibilities, but most likely we’ll start adding days on the end of the year.”