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When the Hunt Is On, Some Schools Close Their Doors

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Deer-hunting season is in full swing in West Virginia. Not coincidentally, Tom Neil is a tough man to track down.

Two recent calls to the elementary school principal brought the same response: "He's in the woods."

Fortunately, Mr. Neil didn't have to bag school to bag a deer during the first week of rifle hunting last month. Like most districts in the Mountain State, the 5,000-student Nicholas County schools shut down for the entire week of Thanksgiving to accommodate both the holiday and hunting season.

Is it appropriate for students to miss classes for an activity that today is largely recreation? Share your opinion in our on-line Town Meeting.

West Virginia isn't the only state where schools take a temporary back seat each year to seasonal traditions. A number of school districts in southeastern Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania also closed schools for the opening day of rifle season. And in Aroostook County, Maine, most high schools took a three-week break earlier this fall to allow students to work in the potato harvest there.

'Camouflage Flu'

In West Virginia, closing schools for a few days of deer hunting honors the state's unshakable love of the sport, said Mr. Neil, the principal of the 170-student Beaver Elementary School.

"Even for the elementary school kids, it makes them better citizens, gives them an appreciation of the outdoors," he said when reached for a telephone interview last week.

For the 40 West Virginia counties that closed schools this year, the practice was as much about necessity as it was about tradition, said Kim Nuzum, a spokeswoman for the state education department. If the rural districts had stayed open, many students and staff members would suddenly have come down with "camouflage flu" or "buck fever," she said.

Most districts in the state receive a handful of paid, nonvacation days they can use to shut down schools each year. Nicholas County school officials try to schedule those days around times when there would otherwise be high rates of absenteeism, Superintendent Bill Grizzell said.

The superintendent learned how far some students will go to make the most of the season when he worked in Morgan County, in the northeastern part of the state. There, he said, one student nabbed a deer on his way to school one morning.

"He called in to say he was going to be tardy because he had to clean it," Mr. Grizzell said.

Down on the Farm

A different situation motivates the annual shutdown in Maine's Aroostook County, located near the Canadian border, where there are almost as many acres of potato fields as there are people.

That's why Superintendent Jerry White knew to brace himself when a well-meaning school board member once asked a group of local potato farmers what would happen if school leaders decided to keep the district high school open during harvest season.

"I walked across the room and said, 'I'm not even touching that,'" recalled Mr. White, the superintendent of the 417-student School Administrative District 33. "A couple of the farmers said, 'If you cut out harvest break, we won't pay our tax bill.'"

As part of a long-standing practice, nearly all of the 19 school districts in the county close down their high schools for at least part of the harvest season, which runs from mid-September to early October. Students make up the time by starting school in mid-August.

Despite a technological boom that has allowed farmers to replace numerous hand-pickers with more efficient mechanical harvesting devices, the three-week harvest season still represents a profitable time of year for many families in the working-class county, Mr. White said.

Students ages 16 and older are legally permitted to operate the mechanical harvesters. They can earn wages that run upwards of $60 a day, six days a week. Younger students, meanwhile, sometimes babysit for the small children of adults who also want to join in the harvest.

"Harvest season allows kids who don't normally have access to some bucks to earn their own and put it into a savings account," Mr. White said. "It instills a sense of responsibility."

Michelle Derosier, a 16-year-old junior whose parents operate a farm in the county, said she typically saves the money she earns during the harvest. Ultimately, she hopes to buy a car.

"Most of my friends work, and some kids complain about it," Ms. Derosier said. "But I enjoy working on the harvester."

Mr. White said he has never known a student to be set back academically by the harvest break. The students who need extra help receive it, "and we do it cheerfully," he said.

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