Want to start a heated debate at your home or workplace? Pose the question of whether West Virginia public schools close too often because of bad weather.
Some folks begin with, “well, when I was a kid they never called off school.” Others say we’ve become wimps about bad weather, but you will also hear parents argue that children should not be waiting outside for the bus when it’s four degrees.
As of yesterday, Kanawha County, the state’s largest school district, has had only three-and-a-half days of school since the Christmas break due to the weather and the water emergency.
Through it all, I pity the county school superintendents. Regardless of the decision—hold classes or cancel school—about half the parents are angry. I give the supers the benefit of the doubt that they are doing what they believe is in the best interest of student safety.
Part of the problem is the antiquated school calendar. We’re still beholden to the old agrarian mindset that kids need the summers off to work on the farm. Public schools should operate, like virtually everything else, on a year-round schedule with interspersed breaks.
West Virginia schools have the option of year-round school (called “balanced calendar”), but few choose it. The current school calendar is a logistical nightmare and not conducive to knowledge retention from year to year, but it’s familiar. All involved have become comfortable with building the rest of their lives around it.
Next year, however, things change. The education reform bill passed by the Legislature last year (SB 359) is designed to give counties more flexibility when figuring out when children should go to school and how to have 180 days of instruction.
Here are some of the key elements of the new law, as defined by the state Board of Education.
–County school boards must have at least two public hearings so all interested and affected parties can have input on the calendar.
–Counties must have 180 days of instruction. Currently, counties are supposed to have 180 days in class, but if there’s a bad winter, many counties fall short.
–The beginning and ending dates for the employment term for teachers and service workers have been extended from 43 to 48 weeks. That gives counties more time to reach 180 days if they miss a lot of snow days.
–School systems must add minutes of instruction to the school day or additional instructional days to make up for time lost due to delayed school openings or early closings.
These and other changes in the calendar won’t end the debates over whether to have school when it snows, but they will ensure that lost time will be made up.