North

School districts scramble to make up for snow days

A crew removed snow by the bagful from a flat portion of the roof  at South Shore Plaza in Braintree early last month.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
A crew removed snow by the bagful from a flat portion of the roof at South Shore Plaza in Braintree early last month.

As snowstorms battered the region, students throughout Greater Boston squealed with delight, fists bumping and arms pumping at the promise of another school day lost to nature’s intervention.

But with spring approaching, the mounds of snow are bound to begin melting; so too will young spirits, as school districts are forced to consider their options for meeting the state’s educational requirements. They include taking time away from spring vacation in April, dropping Good Friday as a day off, holding classes on Saturdays, schoolwork at home, or pushing the final day of the school year to June 30.

The majority of school districts have used all five of the snow days built into their calendars. Some, including the Pentucket Regional School District (Groveland, Merrimac, and West Newbury), Quincy, and Hull, have lost two weeks or more.

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In Braintree, where school has been canceled nine days, the School Committee voted unanimously Monday to petition the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education for an exemption to its 180-day rule.

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In the Ayer Shirley Regional School District, Superintendent Mary Malone has polled staff about their availability to work during April vacation. In Plainville, Superintendent David Raiche is recommending the town’s elementary schools open on Good Friday, April 3.

In Salem, the School Committee on Monday approved a recommendation by Superintendent Stephen Russell that schools open April 23 and 24, the last two days of spring vacation, and make June 26 the end of the school year, barring any additional cancellations.

Under state rules, schools must operate for at least 180 days in an academic year, with a minimum of 900 hours of structured learning time for elementary students and 990 hours at the secondary level.

However, state Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester has the authority to reduce the student learning-time requirements in “extraordinary circumstances.” With respect to missed school days, he has advised districts to make “a good faith effort to adjust school calendars for the balance of the year,” noting that a waiver “has always been a last resort.”

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Braintree Mayor Joseph C. Sullivan called the waiver request “the best solution,” given the circumstances. If the state denies the waiver, all other options will be weighed to ensure the school year ends by June 30, he said.

“Every community is scrambling, and struggling, to figure out the makeup days,” said Sullivan. “We’ve never had a winter like the one we are experiencing, so let’s just recognize this unprecedented situation. The DOE needs to show some understanding and flexibility.”

The South Shore was hit particularly hard by this winter’s storms, which forced schools to close for as many as 11 days in Quincy, and led to the National Guard and heavy equipment crews from six states being called in to help with snow removal efforts.

Many communities have struggled to clear snow from school roofs. Several districts — including Somerville, Pentucket, and Haverhill — canceled classes, citing safety concerns. In Hingham, the Plymouth River Elementary School suffered a partial roof collapse Feb. 19, during the district’s vacation week.

“We’re facing lots of roof issues,” said Haverhill Superintendent James F. Scully, who called in engineers to examine all of the school roofs in the city. Issues at the high school were serious enough to prompt its closing on Feb. 13.

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“In some school buildings, water is just pouring through,” Scully said.

In Cohasset, the School Committee has extended the school year to June 26 as the district gathers input on alternatives, such as Saturday classes and opening schools on Good Friday. The district is “not looking at April vacation because people already have plans to go away,” said Superintendent Barbara Cataldo.

In Salem, students and teachers who by Feb. 3 — the fifth snow day declared by the district — had made plans to be away during the weeklong April break will be allowed to miss school April 23 and 24. Students will be given excused absences; teachers can use personal leave or vacation time, or take the days off without pay.

District administrators worked with the teachers’ union “to pick the lesser of several unpopular choices,” said Russell, the Salem superintendent. “We didn’t want to put our employees in any conflict with religious issues, so we stayed away from Good Friday, and it was too late to give proper notice for making up days during February vacation. We felt there was more educational advantage to having school during April vacation, rather than on Saturdays.”

Meanwhile, Burlington and Wayland are exploring alternatives for providing students with structured learning time outside the classroom. State officials have given both districts the green light to participate in a pilot program on ways to maintain learning time without extending the school year.

“It’s not groundbreaking work, but it’s new for Massachusetts,” said Burlington Superintendent Eric Conti, noting that several other states, including New Hampshire and Minnesota, have already implemented various snow day programs. They include “blizzard bags” filled with worksheets to be done at home, and special projects based on grade level.

“Ideally, our program would be an extension of the school day, as much as that is possible,” said Conti. “It’s not meant to be six hours of worksheets. That wouldn’t be educationally sound. It makes no sense to me to be critical of seat time and then provide work, like in a blizzard bag, that is essentially seat-time work to be done at home. Instead, we would like to extend best practices and create relevant learning experiences.”

Conti said he hopes to present something to the School Committee later this month.

Neither Burlington nor Wayland has exceeded the five days built into their respective calendars to make up for school cancellations.

In Wayland, a discussion on students going online for schoolwork from home is a teacher-initiated effort still “in the idea stage,” said Superintendent Paul Stein. “The irony is that the snow days themselves have prevented us from having meetings to discuss this issue. We were just starting when the snow started to hit.”

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said Burlington and Wayland are — in some respects — pioneers. The pilot program won’t be able to resolve this year’s problems, Scott said, but it “may generate ideas as districts talk to one another. There’ll be a lot of conversation going on as to whether this is an alternative approach that makes sense.”

Globe correspondents Christopher Gavin, Elise Harmon, and Erica Moser contributed to this report. Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.