By Tina Alvey
Looking at a tougher mandate behind the requirement of 180 days of instructional time for students, coupled with clear public opposition to what is perceived as a move toward year-round school, the Greenbrier County Board of Education faces some difficult decisions in the coming weeks.
Having already seen 22 instructional days canceled due to bad weather this winter, the board must now fashion a calendar for the 2014-15 school year that ensures each day missed next year will somehow be made up within a 48-week window, while maintaining the integrity of weeklong breaks for Thanksgiving and Christmas.
During a Thursday forum designed to provide information and receive public input on the calendar process, Superintendent of Schools Sallie Dalton told the 30-some people gathered at Eastern Greenbrier Middle School that, in the coming school year, all closures must be made up, without exception.
According to an information sheet provided to those attending the forum, while weather has often caused school closures for as many as 20 days in a single year, the typical calendar of the past could only accommodate making up about eight days.
“Now the calendar must show how the others will be made up,” the info sheet noted.
Dalton spoke about the unique challenges sprawling Greenbrier County presents to a school system trying to safely transport students. She said the county’s school buses collectively travel 4,750 miles of roadway each day — roughly the distance one would travel if driving from Lewisburg to San Francisco and then back as far as St. Louis. As the state’s second-largest county, Greenbrier is nearly the size of Rhode Island, she said.
And while every road in Lewisburg might be clear on a given morning, other parts of the massive county could be buried in a foot of snow, complicating the decision of whether to close or delay school.
“When it’s your responsibility to make that decision, you have to think of every child as your own child,” Dalton said.
That sentiment was echoed later by board member Jeanie Wyatt, who said, even with the newly toughened mandate about making up snow days, the decision to close school will continue to be guided by a concern for the safety of the children and not by a fear that the day will not be made up later in the year.
“Our children’s safety is No. 1,” Wyatt said.
Resident Darlene Campbell asked school officials why the county couldn’t be split geographically into east and west, and cancel classes only in the portion that has hazardous conditions. She said school systems in Maryland follow that practice, and that many times this winter classes could have been held in most of Greenbrier County if only those with an attendance area hit by bad weather were closed.
Associate Superintendent of Schools Doug Clemons responded that the split isn’t always so clear, as the county’s northern reaches often get as much snow as the western end does.
Campbell also said she knows of studies that show students don’t retain knowledge from the end of the school year through a long summer break, urging the board to consider several shorter breaks instead of the one long one.
Associate Superintendent Catherine Thompson pointed out that an online survey completed by more than 2,000 parents, school employees, students and other county residents showed heavy opposition to the “balanced calendar” option.
Dalton added that school officials have to “honor the culture that we have here” and realize that it is difficult to change the traditional way of looking at the school year.
The information sheet circulated during the forum noted, “In the past, summer breaks have been about 10 weeks long. With the mandate of 180 days of instruction, summer breaks may be as short as four weeks even without moving to a balanced calendar.”
Responding to an audience member’s suggestion that, if history shows that more instructional days are lost to weather in January or February, that any monthlong break should be scheduled then, Thompson said she had looked at statistics from 1992 forward and found, “There is really no rhyme or reason to (snow days).”
Thompson said her study showed that around 11 days are lost due to weather each school year, including one or two prior to Christmas and, in some years, a few in March or April.
Thompson also responded to a question about teachers sending out assignments over the Internet to snow-bound students. Saying there are many households in the county without broadband or cell phone service or computers in the home, Thompson commented, “I would hate right now to build an educational system based on that.”
The board is expected to make a decision on the shape of the 2014-15 school calendar at its next regular meeting, on April 8. The calendar must then pass muster with the state Department of Education before being adopted.
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