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Johnny Get Your Gun

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It's late November, deer-hunting season in West Virginia, and, not coincidentally, Tom Neil is a tough man to track down. Two calls to the elementary school principal bring the same response: "He's in the woods."

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

West Virginia isn't the only state where schools take a temporary back seat to seasonal traditions. A number of school districts in southeastern Ohio and parts of Pennsylvania also close their doors for the opening day of rifle season. And in Aroostook County, Maine, high schools take a fall break—three weeks this year—so students can work the local potato harvest.

In West Virginia, closing schools for a few days of deer hunting honors the state's unshakable love of the sport, says Neil, 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 says.

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

Most districts in the state receive a handful of paid, nonvacation days they can use as they choose 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.

County superintendent Bill Grizzell learned just how far some students will go to make the most of the hunting season when he worked in the Morgan County school system in the northeastern part of the state. There, Grizzell says, 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."

In Maine's Aroostook County, where there are almost as many acres of potato fields as there are people, farming prompts the annual school shutdown. Jerry White, superintendent of the 417-student School Administrative District 33, remembers the time a well-meaning school board member asked a group of local potato farmers what would happen if school leaders decided to keep the district's high school open during harvest season.

"I walked across the room and said, 'I'm not even touching that,' " White says. "A couple of the farmers said, 'If you cut out harvest break, we won't pay our tax bill.' "

Nearly all the 19 school districts in the county close their high schools for at least part of the mid-September to early October harvest season. They make up the time by opening school in mid-August.

Despite the shift on many farms from hand-pickers to more efficient harvesting machines, the three-week harvest season still represents a profitable time of year for many families in the working-class county. Students ages 16 and older are legally permitted to operate the mechanical harvesters and can earn wages that run upward of $60 a day, six days a week. Younger students, meanwhile, can make cash during the harvest by baby-sitting the children of adults working in the fields.

"Most of my friends work," says Michelle Derosier, a 16-year-old junior whose parents operate a farm, "and some kids complain about it. But I enjoy working on the harvester."

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

—Jessica Sandham

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