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Snow days push county schools to brink


On Wednesday, students — and their parents — woke up to the reality of yet another day without school.

For many Lancaster County students, it was their seventh snow day so far. (And we’re only in the first week of February.)

Many county students now will be in class the second week of June — some until Friday, June 13, or even beyond.

The state may offer some relief to graduating seniors, but to get such relief for other students would be a far more complicated matter.

Schools are required to get in 180 days of instruction by June 30. And “there’s no provision in the School Code for schools to get a waiver of the 180-day requirement,” said Tim Eller, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

“The only way changes could occur is by action of the General Assembly,” Eller said, noting that the last time the General Assembly so acted was during the 1995-96 school year, when snowstorms closed schools for two weeks.

At that time, the General Assembly allowed schools to calculate their required instructional time by hours, rather than days, and permitted schools to get in instructional time on Saturdays, he said.

By law, elementary students must receive at least 900 hours of instructional time each year; for secondary students, that number rises to 990.

State Rep. Ryan Aument, R-41, said the circumstances would have to be “dire” before he’d consider “flexing the 180-day requirement.”

But, he said, if school board members, school administrators and parents in his district came to him, seeking relief, he’d be “very open to having that conversation.”

Rep. Mike Sturla, D-96, said “there would have to be a pretty compelling argument” for offering such relief. He hasn’t yet heard from any constituents on the issue, he said.

Gene Freeman, superintendent of the Manheim Township School District, said he thinks the Legislature “needs to review, and hopefully offer some type of reprieve” to school districts, “especially if we have a few more of these days.”

An individual school district that has to close for an emergency may apply for a waiver to the 180-day requirement.

Such waivers are granted on a case-by-case basis by the state’s education secretary.

But the regulations state plainly that “severe weather is not considered an emergency for granting a waiver to the 180-day requirement.”

Last year, Penn Manor High School received a waiver for the day it had to close because of a fire.

“You need to have an extenuating emergency,” said Michael Leichliter, Penn Manor School District superintendent.

He said this is his fifth year as superintendent and this winter, “is, by far, the worst” he can remember since his teaching days.

Leichliter said Penn Manor has exhausted all four of its built-in snow days, and now is adding days to the end of the year. “We are now at June 11, but I may take a look to see if there are any other vacation or in-service days that we can convert to school days.”

The biggest challenge: high school graduation, now slated for June 3.

Penn Manor uses Franklin & Marshall College for its commencement, and shares the costs with Hempfield School District, which has scheduled its graduation for June 4.

School districts may seek waivers to the 180-day rule for graduating seniors.

According to state regulations, a school district has to show it’s made a “bona fide effort” to provide 180 days of instruction to seniors.

 “We are working to see if we can get an exception since so many seniors and families already have plans for that second week of June,” Leichliter said. “We have not made a final decision yet but that will be a consideration soon. One of the challenges is that we still have a full month of February which, according to the forecasts, could still bring some potentially large storms.”

Brenda Becker, superintendent of the Hempfield School District, said her district also is considering seeking a waiver for its seniors. (Hempfield’s last student day now is slated for June 11.)

Schools haven’t just been dealing with snow this winter, she pointed out.

“We’ve had everything this year — the polar vortex, with minus 20 wind chills; we’ve had ice, we’ve had snow. I’m ready for the locusts.”

Becker was heartened to learn this week that the state is considering pushing back the testing window for PSSA exams. She and other superintendents were asked for their input on the matter by the state Department of Education.

She said the snow days and delays have made it “tough for kids to get into a rhythm with their learning.” It’s like stopping and starting a book; each time you stop and start, you need to go back a few pages to review, she said.

Martin Hudacs is set to retire at the end of this school year as superintendent of the Solanco School District. He joked that he is taking personally the awfulness of his last winter at the helm.

Determining whether to call a snow day is a particular challenge, he noted, in a district that stretches over 180 square miles.

Hudacs said that not only have snow days impacted “the rhythm of education,” but the mere anticipation of inclement weather has proven to be a distraction for students.

Solanco has turned three student holidays in March, April and May into instructional days, but still has to add days to the end of the year.

Its last student day now is slated for June 13. Graduation is scheduled for June 12.

Hudacs said that because Solanco’s graduation is held on campus, the district has more flexibility than other districts do in scheduling commencement.

If the last day of school gets pushed back further, so, too, will graduation. But going into the third week of June isn’t a prospect that Hudacs finds appealing.

“When you’re adding days on to the end of the year, you begin to wonder, does it prove as effective instructionally?” Hudacs asked.

Kevin Peart, superintendent of Lampeter-Strasburg School District, said his district has exhausted its three built-in snow days, and has added four days to the end of the year. So the last student day now is June 13.

“We’re not into the third week (of June) yet,” he said. “Knock on wood.”

“At this point,” he added, “It’s almost laughable. You just take it as it comes.”

Peart said his “heart goes out to the seniors.” They’re probably wondering, he said, if they’ll ever graduate.

He said his administration would recommend a graduation date to the school board, “once we’re out of the woods.”

“Who knows when that will be?” he asked, quipping, “Maybe May.”

Conestoga Valley School District may be ending its school year earlier than some others. Its last student day now is June 10.

The district had four or five makeup days built into its calendar, said Superintendent Gerald Huesken. And it had school on Jan. 22, when other districts closed, so it’s had six snow days, not seven.

Manheim Township, however, doesn’t build makeup days into its calendar. It’s among the districts that now will be going until at least June 13.

Graduation has been scheduled for June 4, so the district is considering seeking a waiver to the 180-day requirement for graduating seniors, said Freeman, the district’s superintendent.

Freeman said he’s received emails from parents asking the district to find some alternative to extending school into late June. The district is “exploring all options,” he said.

Becker, of Hempfield, said: “It could be another 20 years before you’d see a winter like this.”

She quickly added: “I hope.”

Suzanne Cassidy is a Lancaster Newspapers reporter. She can be reached You can also follow @SuzCassidyLNP on Twitter.