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Districts Scramble To Make Up for Lost Time

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While many of their parents had President's Day off, the 102,000 students in the Baltimore County, Md., schools trudged off to class--victims of an extraordinary number of days lost to snow.

But the students couldn't complain too much, having already enjoyed a three-day weekend thanks to a snowstorm that forced the district to close school the previous Friday. Feb. 16 was the 10th day the suburban district had lost this year.

Yet school officials, in their planning for the school year, had anticipated a need for only two extra days. As in hundreds of other school districts around the country, the unusually harsh winter has left Baltimore County scrambling to squeeze in extra school days, and hoping Mother Nature has no more surprises in store.

In the Northeast, last month brought the third-highest January precipitation levels in about a hundred years, according to the National Weather Service.

The heavy snow has wreaked havoc with academic calendars, as many districts have closed school so often that they cannot reach their state-mandated minimum number of school days without adding extra days.

Baltimore County officials have drafted a plan that cancels holidays, calls off teachers' professional days, and extends the school year. In the wake of last month's storms, the school board has asked its superintendent for a revised schedule that will add about five days next year.

Least Painful Options

"We should have learned our lesson two years ago when we were closed due to ice storms," said board member Sanford Teplitzky. "I think it's naive to think we'd only use one or two days."

School districts face a host of options in trying to reach their requirements--usually either 180 days, about 1,000 hours of instruction, or both. None of the solutions, however, pleases all parents and teachers.

"It's been a real problem coming up with something that will make everyone happy," said Kenneth M. Wright, the assistant superintendent of central Virginia's Colonial Heights district. The 2,650-student district has lost 12 days this year because of bad weather.

The school board has added 15 minutes to each school day, and students attended classes on one Saturday last month.

Laws in many states don't give districts the option of Saturday classes, and complaints from parents in Colonial Heights dissuaded officials there from trying weekend sessions again.

"We got so much reaction that we decided it wouldn't be a smart thing to do again," Mr. Wright said.

In Baltimore County, complaints from parents and teachers led officials to nix two options: lengthening the school day and canceling spring break.

In several states, lawmakers and state education officials are trying to alleviate some of the pressure on districts. On Feb. 6, the Pennsylvania House passed a bill that would allow districts to meet state requirements by reaching either the required number of hours or days. Currently, districts must meet both.

This week, the Maryland school board is scheduled to consider a two-day waiver in the state's requirement of 180 school days to make up for days lost in January's blizzard, when Gov. Parris N. Glendening declared a state of emergency.

While juggling the wishes of parents and teachers, school boards in some states face additional constraints. In Connecticut, the school calendar is tied to the state's fiscal year and cannot extend beyond June 30. Most of Connecticut's districts can make up their losses by cutting into spring break, said Tom Murphy, the public information assistant to the state education commissioner.

No-Win Situation

Scheduling requirements, safety concerns, and the disruption in the lives of students, teachers, and parents make the decision to close school a tough one.

Keep school open in unsafe conditions and risk the possibility of injury, damage, and the wrath of concerned parents. Close school in marginal weather and working parents complain about having to reschedule their days.

Most districts have a network of school and transportation officials who often stay up all night during bad weather to check conditions and weigh safety concerns against the costs of losing another day.

"This is a no-win situation," said Doug Buchanan, the executive director of education services at the West Des Moines, Iowa, schools. The district's 8,700 students have lost four days this year to subzero temperatures.

In states where school funding is tied to average daily attendance, districts also face a financial penalty for making the wrong decision. In Missouri, for example, schools that stay open in bad weather but have poor attendance pay a price the next fiscal year.

For some districts, each new storm this year has blown apart yet another carefully planned school calendar. Despite the temptation to avoid such rescheduling, Colonial Heights' Mr. Wright said schools should resist pressure to stay open during unsafe conditions.

"We aren't taking any more chances, but we are waiting until the last minutes to make our decision," he said.

During January's blizzard, Shelter Island, N.Y., Superintendent Lydia Axelrod followed a simple rule: If she could get to school, then students should be able to as well. On Jan 9., after one of the worst storms of the decade dumped more than two feet of snow, Ms. Axelrod drove the 1 1/2-mile causeway from her home on Ram Island to the building that houses the district's elementary, middle, and high school.

So she saw no reason to cancel school. About 200 of the 240 students showed up that day to find that every other school in New York City and Long Island was closed.

"We're a hardy kind of people here," said Ms. Axelrod, who also serves as the principal and, in fact, the district's entire full-time administrative staff. "My philosophy is: If it's safe, go."

No matter how many days a district has lost, officials should always err on the side of caution, said Les Omotani, the superintendent in West Des Moines. He recalled growing up in rural Alberta, Canada, where buses carried grain shovels and students had to dig them out when they got stuck in the show.

"I think a lot of people believe we were a lot hardier in the old days, but I don't know that that was so smart," Mr. Omotani said. "I think we were more lucky than smart."

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