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Schools work to minimize impact of #polarvortex2019 on district calendars, classrooms

Some districts have already hit state snow-day limit

Superintendent Michael Shibler was able to make it to work every day last week, even though the snow-clogged roads doubled his usual 10-minute drive. But he wasn’t about to subject Rockford students and parents to the hazards of deep drifts and sub-zero temperatures, so it was one weeklong snow day for them.

So it was as well for all other 19 districts in Kent ISD — except East Grand Rapids, which held school on Tuesday — as West Michigan dealt with its harshest winter storm in recent memory. Countywide closings for the ice storm this week only compounded the problems created by those five missed days last week.

“In the 30 years I’ve been here this is without a doubt the longest period of time school has had to be called consecutively,” said West Michigan’s longest-serving superintendent. “We have an unusual circumstance based upon this polar vortex, and certainly with the top priority (being) the safety of our students, we had no other choice but to close school.”

As classes resume this week, principals and teachers are scrambling to make up for lost instruction time.

Districts are required to provide 180 days and 1,098 hours of instruction time. If they fall short they will not receive their full state funding from the School Aid Fund. But they are automatically forgiven six snow days, and up to an additional three upon applying for a waiver, for circumstances beyond their control such as storms, fires and health issues.

In Rockford, last week’s five missed days — followed by this week’s ice storm — put the district’s total of closed days for the year at 13, counting days missed for extreme heat last August and for a power outage. That means Rockford has already surpassed the state’s legal limit for missed instruction days. Lowell has also had 13 snow days.

Shibler said he is talking with other superintendents in Kent County to craft a request for legislators to provide additional relief from the snow-day regulations, so districts don’t have to extend the school year further into June. Rockford and several other Kent ISD districts end June 7, while others end the last week of May.

Grand Rapids Public Schools has used 10 snow days and will likely join other districts in asking for legislative relief, said spokesman John Helmholdt. Forest Hills has used 11.

Michael Shibler

Asking Snow Forgiveness

There is precedent for such relief, Shibler said, citing the 2013-14 school year when, following a winter in which districts missed an average of 9 ½ days. At that time, the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder allowed districts to add more minutes on to existing days rather than schedule additional days. Given the unusual nature of last week’s storm, Shibler said it’s reasonable to ask for additional snow days to be forgiven.

“This is the first time I’m aware of that we’ve even used our six (allowed) days,” said Shibler, noting he’ll be requesting the additional three allowed by law. Even then, Rockford will need more relief because it has canceled school the maximum of nine times, he said.

Further, he doesn’t want to add more days beyond the district’s scheduled end date. Many families have already scheduled vacations, students have lined up summer jobs, and Shibler said he doesn’t want to have to cancel classes due to extreme heat as he did last August. Most Rockford buildings are not air-conditioned.

“I am going to be asking our state legislators to craft legislation to provide relief, and ask that the governor would sign that,” Shibler said.

Other school leaders are working on similar requests, said Chris Glass, lobbyist for the West Michigan Talent Triangle.

“I am hearing a common call for relief from my colleagues across the state,” Glass said. “The Michigan Association of School Administrators have also sent out communication to the superintendents across the state indicating they’re working on this as well.”

Although it’s too early to have received formal requests, “interest in forgiven days is high,” said William DiSessa, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education. While districts may add time to each day to meet the instruction requirements, he added, the state recommends adding days, “because adding a few minutes at the end of each remaining day may not result in added learning by students.”

Minimal Classroom Impact Expected

Meanwhile, principals are working with teachers on how to best make up for the lost days and get the most out of the instruction time remaining.

At Rockford’s Meadow Ridge Elementary, that’s a prime concern of his staff, said Principal Blake Bowman. But so is the emotional well-being of students back from a week off.

“For some kids, they really missed the routine and structure,” Bowman said, especially those who don’t get all their needs met at home. They crave a “return to structure of predictable love, getting those basic needs met. We don’t always know which kids are going to be those shaken soda cans,” with emotional turmoil bubbling inside.

‘For some kids, they really missed the routine and structure.’ – Blake Bowman, principal, Meadow Ridge Elementary School 

Bowman said teachers spent longer times on Monday asking students how they were doing, assuring them they were missed, and hearing stories about how they spent their time off. For some students, the return to school could be accompanied by high anxiety, he said.

“There’s a temptation to go over the top and try to cram curriculum. One of the things teachers are trying to do is just do those relational touch points, to make sure the time was good and they’re in a good state of mind.”

Assessment screenings scheduled to begin last week had to be pushed back by a week, and teachers will trim non-essential activities as the semester goes on, he said. But that doesn’t mean taking out important relational moments.

“I’m certainly not going to tell my teachers, ‘We lost a week, so cancel Mother’s Day,’” Bowman said with a chuckle. “But teachers will find that rhythm.”


A primer on state snow-day regulations

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.


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  1. When a governor declares a state of emergency, all affected areas should automatically be forgiven for those included dates, without having to request it. I don’t understand why this isn’t already a practice in place.


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