Fifth snow day spurs school makeup debate

ahelms@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 13, 2014 

  • How bad?

    Here’s how winter weather has affected the CMS schedule. Nearby districts have had similar effects.

    • Jan. 7-8: School delayed two hours because of extreme cold.

    • Jan. 24: School delayed two hours because of extreme cold.

    • Jan. 28: School dismissed early because of snow.

    • Jan. 29-30: School closed because of snow.

    • Feb. 11: School dismissed early because of snow.

    • Feb. 12-14: School closed because of snow.

Debate over makeup plans intensified Thursday as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools canceled Friday classes, the fifth snow day this year.

Spring break is now down to three days under the calendar approved two years ago, with April 14 and April 15 becoming makeup days for Thursday and Friday. CMS officials have said they’ll review alternatives, such as Saturday school and extended school days, and see if the board wants to revise that calendar.

Social media lit up Wednesday and Thursday with parents and employees arguing for holding Saturday school, using holidays, adding days to the end of the year or adding time to school days.

Other districts are considering Saturday makeups to avoid shrinking spring break. Cabarrus County already held one Saturday makeup day on Feb. 1 and scheduled another for Feb. 22.

“We are trying to do everything we can not to have to go into spring break,” spokeswoman Ronnye Boone said.

Many commenters suggested CMS focus on meeting the state requirement for 1,025 hours of instruction, even if that means slightly extending the day, rather than adding makeup days.

Superintendent Heath Morrison said Thursday afternoon he has staff reviewing that and other options, even as most are busy making decisions about weekend events and monitoring schools and other CMS properties. There’s no simple calculation to say how many makeup days could be avoided, he said – especially when there’s no guarantee this winter won’t bring more cancellations.

“We just want everybody to be patient. We know everybody’s really anxious,” he said.

Calls to change calendar

The unusually harsh winter, which has left schools across the state looking at a menu of undesirable options to make up time, is intensifying calls to revise the state calendar law, which prescribes starting and ending dates and the number of teacher work days.

“The restrictions box us into a very tight window,” CMS board member Eric Davis said Thursday. “We’re left with these difficult choices.”

“This is just another example of why the (General Assembly) should change the school calendar law,” said state Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg, a former CMS teacher and administrator.

Morrison said his staff is also looking into whether there is any possibility for the state to waive makeup days because of the weather emergency.

The CMS calendar is shaped by an advisory panel of employees and parents, with options posted in online polls before going to the school board for a vote. Ironically, CMS pleas for broader public participation in calendar committee meetings, where the pros and cons of various options are discussed in detail, generally meet with a big “ho hum.”

But opinions abound once makeup days become reality. All options have drawbacks, including the likelihood of low attendance.

• Cutting into spring break interferes with vacation plans and erodes morale as students and teachers prepare for the final stretch of school.

Retired CMS teacher Glenda Blaisdell-Buck vividly remembers giving up spring break in 1990, after Hurricane Hugo caused extended closings in September 1989.

“I have never been so exhausted at the end of a school year,” she said.

In addition, this year CMS’s spring break coincides with Passover.

• Saturday school can also interfere with family plans, as well as employees’ second jobs. Employees with children could be forced to line up additional child care. And Saturdays are the Jewish sabbath.

• CMS has faced criticism and protests in past years for using the Martin Luther King Day holiday and Memorial Day as makeup days. Neither was designated as a makeup day this year, but some now say school on Memorial Day would be preferable to shortening spring break.

• Adding days at the end of the year would conflict with graduations. The last day for CMS is June 10. Graduation ceremonies start at 8:30 a.m. June 11.

Union County school officials scheduled their first three makeup days without having to touch spring break but have yet to decide how to compensate for Thursday’s closing. Options include choosing a Saturday or extending normal school days, spokesman Rob Jackson said.

Gaston County’s calendar, like CMS’s, has predesignated makeup days. That calendar calls for spring break days to be used to make up this week’s cancellations.

Iredell-Statesville Schools has lost six days to bad weather, and has already tacked two days onto the end of the school year. Officials haven’t decided how to deal with Friday’s closing

“By law, we can’t go to school past June 13, and (school board members) really don’t want to cut into spring break,” spokeswoman Dawn Creason said.

CMS, ISS and Gaston students are scheduled for a makeup day on Monday, which had originally been a teacher work day. Morrison said his staff will be watching weekend weather, monitoring the conditions of side roads and trying to get 160 school parking lots cleared. It’s possible, he said, that CMS could end up canceling a makeup day, which would further complicate the schedule for the rest of the year.

“Our hope is that we will be back in school on Monday,” he said.

Staff writers Adam Bell, Joe DePriest and Joe Marusak contributed.

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms

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