THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Snow days put school break at risk

Scramble underway in many districts to make up for lost time

Anders Johnson and his mother, Mary, of Hamilton returned to their car after it was announced that February school vacation would be canceled. Anders Johnson and his mother, Mary, of Hamilton returned to their car after it was announced that February school vacation would be canceled.
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / February 12, 2011

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February vacation? What February vacation?

It turns out students in the Hamilton-Wenham middle and high schools had their February break a few weeks early, thanks to eight days of canceled school because of snowfall and then snow-swamped roofs. This week, the School Committee voted to cancel February break, dashing dreams of Disney World and warmer destinations.

“It’s disappointing; we had plans to travel to see relatives,’’ said Mary Johnson of Hamilton, who has now paid airline penalties to switch her flights to Virginia from February to April. “It works for us, but I feel bad for people who had planned a defined week of either a trip or a condo. Then you don’t have that flexibility.’’

The vacation cancellation at Hamilton-Wenham appears to be the first snow-related shake-up to the school calendar, but not necessarily the last. Superintendents are beginning to discuss ways they could make up days if — perish the thought — there are yet more snowstorms serious enough to cancel school. While many school districts still have a one- or two-day cushion left before they would have to consider adding school days, it is only mid-February, officials point out.

The state mandates that schools conduct 180 days of instruction, and Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester warned superintendents in an early February memo that it would be premature to grant any waivers due to snow. He said school districts still have time to adjust their calendars: by canceling or shortening February or April vacations; switching scheduled professional development days into instruction days; holding school days on Saturday; keeping schools open on Good Friday; or adding days in June.

The commissioner went even further this year by introducing a notion that seems like anathema to Massachusetts schools: extending the school year into July. State law permits districts to extend beyond June 30, but officials would have to contend with teachers contracts that in some cases preclude that, the commissioner’s memo noted.

“Obviously it’s been an unusually tough year,’’ said Jonathan Palumbo, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “The commissioner is encouraging people to look for every opportunity to make up time, but recognizes there are challenges to that.’’

Paul Andrews of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents said many school officials are discussing their options.

“At this stage, I’m not hearing a lot of people talking about cancellation of school vacations,’’ he said. “I do hear a lot of people talking about using Saturdays where necessary.’’

The Boston public schools have used up all five snow days built into their calendar. The school year in Boston is set to end June 28, but officials could still add two more days before colliding with the end of the teachers’ contract June 30, according to spokesman Matt Wilder.

In Georgetown, where an elementary school roof partially collapsed under the weight of snow, schools have been closed as many as seven days this year. The school year has now been extended to June 23 or 24, depending on the particular school, and discussions are underway about how to change the schedule to accommodate any additional closures.

In Methuen — which lost five days to snow, one to a citywide emergency, and two to cleaning snow off school roofs — officials have already extended the school year from June 15 to June 27.

Superintendent Judith A. Scannell said she still has three days’ wiggle room in the calendar, but she met yesterday with her school principals and teachers’ union president to start brainstorming, just in case. Though Methuen will not hold school in July, she said, Saturday school could be a possibility.

“I wanted to be proactive on this,’’ Scannell said. “We’re going to roll out some different ideas, to the teachers and the School Committee, so we can at least have a plan A and a plan B in place, and so parents will be fully informed.’’

In the Berkshires, Lenox Superintendent Edward W. Costa II has closed schools four days this winter and still has space on the calendar for one more snow day.

But he is already conducting an online poll asking parents for their preferences in the event that winter comes calling again. Would they rather lose February or April school vacation week; swap both vacations for a single break in mid-March; hold school on Saturdays in April or May; lengthen each school day; or make up days after June 22?

A proponent of year-round schools, Costa was also hoping to spur a conversation about reimagining the school calendar.

“We use a calendar that’s 100 years old,’’ he said. “Our kids don’t go on harvest anymore.’’

But so far, the clear majority of some 500 parents who have answered his survey are in favor of sticking with the “very traditional New England calendar,’’ he said. They want to keep their February and April breaks and add days in June.

In Hamilton-Wenham, some parents were less troubled about the loss of February vacation than the district’s inability to reopen schools in recent weeks.

“I’m all for safety,’’ said Wenham mother Martha Brennan. “But why are we the only district that was out for eight days due to snow on the roof?’’

Now, joked Assistant Superintendent Peter Gray, “You could eat off those roofs, they’re so nice and clean.’’

Hamilton-Wenham schools will still be closed on President’s Day, but open on the four days that follow, as well as on a professional development day May 27. The elementary schools will be open to June 22, and the middle and high schools will not close until June 24. Of course, that could change if the revised calendar gets iced over.

“Is this it?’’ said Andrews, of the association of superintendents. “Or are we going to be hitting more problems down the road?’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com.

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