NEW PALESTINE — No school, no problem.
That is how one mother of three elementary-aged children sees it. While Jill Jones admits her three children are getting a little “stir crazy” with the cancellation of classes at Sugar Creek Elementary School for the fourth straight day after a two-week break, Jones has been keeping them busy with homemade lessons.
“Parents are responsible for their kids’ education anyway,” Jones said.
It’s one of the reasons she has no problem with Southern Hancock schools’ decision to apply for a waiver to not make up two days schools lost to the winter storm this week. All four county superintendents intend to apply for the waiver after the Indiana Department of Education offered Tuesday to write off two instructional days because of the heavy snow and historically low temperatures this week. DOE officials said late Wednesday they would not extend the offer beyond two days.
For now, the 2013-14 school year will be 178 days for districts that accept the waivers and elect to not make up the snow days. For years, 180 instructional days has been the benchmark, a figure that past administrations had set virtually in stone amid sweeping reforms designed to improve student performance.
While Indiana statute provides for the department to grant waivers of the 180-day requirement in exceptional circumstances, the decision to offer the waiver is a break from previous administrations.
“The policy change is a major change from any of the past policies that I have been aware of,” Eastern Hancock Superintendent Randy Harris said.
“In the (Tony) Bennett administration, there was no wavier except for an extraordinary circumstance, and extraordinary pretty much meant that you had a major building issue. I know Henryville – with the tornado (in 2012) – is an example.”
In past administrations, Harris said, it was a rule that each of the first five days school was canceled had to be made up. After that, schools were required to make up one day for every additional three days missed.
Daniel Altman, the DOE press secretary, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz felt this week’s weather fell under the definition of exceptional circumstances.
“When you look at the weather Indiana has been experiencing these past few days – this is extreme throughout the state,” Altman said. “It becomes an issue of student safety, and we thought this was an important step to take for the schools.”
All district officials have to do is fill out the proper paperwork and submit it to the DOE, and the waiver will be granted, Altman said.
Mt. Vernon Superintendent Bill Riggs said his school board approved applying for the waiver during Monday night’s board meeting. The decision to offer the waiver is consistent with Ritz’s position when she was running for office, Riggs said. “The widespread nature of the storm makes it unique, and she made a good decision for schools throughout the state.”
Make-up days typically are added to the end of the school year or are scheduled for the first week of the two-week spring break. Last year, a number of parents grumbled about losing time off spring break because their children were making up time lost to snow days.
Greenfield-Central Superintendent Linda Gellert said makeup days are rarely well-received by students and their families and therefore do not result in quality classroom time.
“Attendance is often very low, and sadly, the makeup days are not very productive,” Gellert wrote in an email.
New Palestine High School English teacher Caroline Clayton was thrilled to hear of the waiver offer.
“I like it, and I appreciate it,” Clayton said. “This was not an isolated event for our district. This was something that affected the whole state.”
As an advanced-placement teacher, Clayton said not having to make up two days’ worth of classes won’t make that much difference for her students. “Once we get back into a week, we’ll have to make choices about what we can and can’t get in,” she said.
Doe Creek Middle School teacher Erin Amones also appreciates the waiver, but she had one question for DOE officials: “I just wonder why these weather days are any different from other weather-related school cancellations?” She said if they don’t have to make up all the missed days, teachers will need to adjust their lesson plans.
“Students will have fewer days to learn the same amount of material,” Amones said.
Southern Hancock Superintendent Jim Halik said the waiver opportunity came at a perfect time, despite the fact county schools have been on holiday break since before Christmas.
“The timing could not have been better because it didn’t interrupt anything,” Halik said, noting that the holiday break fell between grading periods. “Nobody had started a lesson; nobody had started a unit; and no one had started a lecture or instruction yet.”
Gellert wrote that teachers will certainly need to adjust classroom instruction to include all missed lessons.
“And of course, we hope that families will continue to make reading, the basis of all learning, a priority at home during extended breaks,” she wrote.
Halik said people need to remember that Dec. 21 was the official first day of winter; and not knowing what type of weather lies ahead, the offer of the waiver was the right thing to do.
“It is a good-faith offer from the DOE to say that this is something that is extreme ... For those of us who have lived many decades, this is one of the worst winters in many years,” Halik said.
As far as one teacher is concerned, the days missed might have an unintended positive consequence.
“It might whet student appetites a little more towards learning,” Clayton said. “I hope they want to get back to school.”