School district makes up for lost instructional time, but more snow in the forecast

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The Eau Claire School District has lost 11 days to extreme winter conditions so far this academic year

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School district makes up for lost instructional time, but more snow in the forecast

All the cancellations are difficult on students taking Advanced Placement classes or studying for other high-assessment tests.

All the cancellations are difficult on students taking Advanced Placement classes or studying for other high-assessment tests.

© 2019 Taylor Pomasl

All the cancellations are difficult on students taking Advanced Placement classes or studying for other high-assessment tests.

© 2019 Taylor Pomasl

© 2019 Taylor Pomasl

All the cancellations are difficult on students taking Advanced Placement classes or studying for other high-assessment tests.

After record-setting amounts of snow and cold hit the Eau Claire community in January and February, the area school district is struggling to make up instructional time. This winter, the school district has called 11 snow days from inclement weather. On Feb. 18, the Eau Claire Area School District’s board met to discuss options.

The calendar originally had four inclement weather days planned, as well as one day of professional development for staff that was turned into a fifth make-up day. However, the winter conditions caused the district to close for eight days and have two two-hour delays that created the instruction deficit.

Mary Ann Hardebeck, the Eau Claire Area District superintendent, said the district typically uses three inclement weather days a year.

“Typically, those extras that we filled into the calendar suffice,” said Kim Koller, the executive director of administration for the Eau Claire School District. “Every once in awhile we’ll have an extraordinary winter, like we did this year … but this is definitely the exception.”

At the meeting, Hardebeck presented four options to make up the missed snow days.

The first was to recover entire days of instruction, which would be vital for Advanced Placement classes and other high-stakes assessments. It wouldn’t add any additional transportation costs, and families would be impacted by fewer days overall.

The second and third options involved extending instructional time starting March 1 and ending June 6, either by 17 minutes or 30 minutes per day. Hardebeck said the additional costs for transportation were estimated to be $79,452, with an additional $90,000 to $180,000 for overtime compensation for school employees. The superintendent said this option may negatively impact families and staff by adding potential conflicts with after-school activities.

The final option was to extend the end of the school year to June 11. The date would be extended if more snow days are called. This option would affect prearranged plans made by families and summer programming and community partner programs scheduled to start at that time.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, first through sixth grade need 1,050 total hours of instruction, while grades seven to 12 need 1,137 hours. According to Wisconsin State Statute 121.02, this time includes recess and passing time between classes, but not lunch hours.

To begin making up these hours, the board required elementary and middle school students to attend classes on Feb. 21 and all students on Feb. 25 and June 7. As of writing, due to inclement weather, school was canceled Feb. 25, making it another item to address at the school board’s next meeting. April 22 was originally a professional development day for staff, but it has been added to the calendar to help make up instructional time.

Because high school students still need to make up instructional minutes, the district will be working with high school administration to looking at other options, such as cutting lunch minutes or adding more time to the school day.

“Our No. 1 job is to keep students safe, and when we feel like it’s not safe for students to be walking to school, or if it’s not safe for them to be on a bus on the road, we do make the decision not to have school,” said Koller.

Mark Goings, president of the Eau Claire Association of Educators, said the results were interesting, but he understands the district is struggling to solve an odd problem. Options like adding minutes have consequences the school has to consider.

“There’s already discussions about ‘Is their start time too early?’” Goings said, “and if they had to go another 17 minutes or 30 minutes earlier in the morning, is that best practice for those students also?”

He said he believes this academic calendar has suffered from the most days off in the last 25 years.

“This is my 24th (year), and this is the most in my career that I can remember,” Goings said.

Students from the district voiced their concerns at the meeting. Matthew Holtz, a junior at North High School in Eau Claire, raised concerns to the Board about AP classes being canceled and interrupted. He said the hardest part of the continuous inclement weather days was breaking routine.

“The AP test is a set date, and it doesn’t change just because of one state’s weather,” Holtz said. “In my AP (Chemistry) class, we had a lab the last day of the semester, and it took us an entire month to actually finish the lab reports and turn them in, which is a big gap and loss of any momentum we had in the class.”

Calling a Snow Day

The decision-making process to call a school day begins the night before with a panel of administrators, including the administration, buildings and grounds crew and student transit. Beginning at midnight, buildings and grounds crews monitor campuses and attempt to plow and shovel to prepare walkways and parking lots for the following morning.

At about 4 a.m., drivers — including student transit, school drivers and the superintendent — drive specific routes to test road conditions. At 4:45 a.m., all the members convene on a conference call to make the final decision. The group also looks to the National Weather Service for advisories and warnings, which will raise levels of concern.

“We really look at, ‘Is it safe for people to come in?’ or ‘Will it be safe when it’s time for people to leave?’” Koller said.

Koller said guidelines are in place. The administration analyzes circumstances such as a sustained temperature of 30 degrees or colder or the timing of precipitation. The conditions of roads and parking lots contribute to the decision as well.

Hardebeck adds that the decision is all about student safety.

“We have a number of teenage drivers, and we’re always mindful about them as well,” Hardebeck said.

However, she asks parents to remain patient and understand they want students to succeed.

“There are no popular choices,” Hardebeck said. “Someone is always inconvenienced. Someone is always unhappy.”

Effects on Classroom

Hardebeck said having one or two snow days a year is acceptable, and the school schedule is built to absorb those. However, having many can be very disruptive for families and students.

“When they come back, there’s kind of a resettling that has to take place,” Hardebeck said.

Carissa Brooks, a special education teacher at Lakeshore Elementary School, said a snow day every once in awhile can be a good break to allow teachers to catch up on paperwork and grading. However, after several days off, behaviors and momentum in classes can be affected.

“What are we going to teach? A lot of it is just reteaching,” Brooks said. “How can we create an instruction that can help the students still create that growth, but also catch them up to what we all have missed?”

Brooks said routine is vital for students. After extended breaks due to inclement weather, behaviors can spike in the classroom.

“Their world is in a whirlwind,” Brooks said.

Matthew Holtz, a junior at North High School, said recovering his routine was a challenge, and he wants to get back into his school rhythm.

“It definitely got to a point where I didn’t want to have another snow day,” Holtz said. “I wished that there was school, just because of the fact that I’m missing so much that I could be learning and I won’t remember anything.”

During this time, planning ahead and collaborating with other staff is important. Brooks said connecting with parents can help too, so each side understands changes in curriculum and decisions made by the board. She said remaining flexible is vital for this school year.

“Everyone loves snow days, but this is just a little ridiculous,” Brooks said.

What’s Next

Hardebeck will present new options to make up the inclement weather days at the board’s next meeting on March 4. These include adding more days to the school year, either in the calendar year or summer, and adding minutes to the high school day.

Hardebeck said the district is doing the best it can under extraordinary circumstances.

“All of this is out of our control,” Hardebeck said. “We try to do the very best we can under the circumstances and with the resources that we have to make up the days. We just ask for understanding and support.”

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School district makes up for lost instructional time, but more snow in the forecast