Schools push limit of calamity days

Bert Gilbert of Toledo Public Schools charges bus batteries affected by the cold weather. The weather has forced the district to close repeatedly this year.
Bert Gilbert of Toledo Public Schools charges bus batteries affected by the cold weather. The weather has forced the district to close repeatedly this year.

Enjoy the days off now, students. You’ll likely pay for it later.

Winter’s a long way from over, but many northwest Ohio school districts have used their allotted snow days, meaning school may stretch into the summer.

The snow and cold have wreaked havoc on school schedules. Dangerously cold temperatures closed many area districts Friday, pushing them to or beyond their schedule’s capacity.

PHOTO GALLERY: Biting cold continues.

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The closures bring scheduling chaos, could extend school years, and, for some districts, complicate implementation of a newly mandated teacher-evaluation system.

Schools need 175 instruction days to receive full state funding, an Ohio Department of Education spokesman said. Many districts schedule 182 days, with two for parent-teacher conferences, and five extra days in case weather or other circumstances force them to close unexpectedly.

There’s no set rule that schools can use only five “calamity days,” according to the education department. Those that schedule more days get more snow days. But most districts schedule only 182 days, and many districts already have been shut five or even six days.

Though the closures aren’t desired, most school officials said they felt they made the right choice based on the frigid temperatures Friday.

“We try to be in session,” said Jim Gault, Toledo Public Schools’ chief academic officer, “but we have to take student needs into account.”

In Michigan, where many districts have called off for even more snow days than those in northwest Ohio, schools must provide at least 1,098 instruction hours and at least 170 total school days.

The first six days of closures can count toward those hours and days, but if schools remain closed for more than those six days, the time must be made up.

When deciding whether to close, gauging driving conditions is a pretty uniform process for leaders of area school districts. Superintendents join transportation directors and other administrators in driving district streets, checking road conditions, and seeing how thoroughly residents’ sidewalks are shoveled.

Many school leaders this winter took to Twitter while they inspected roads, updating families on conditions and sharing pictures of drifting snow and slick streets. District leaders also talk to one another, comparing forecasts and neighbors’ plans.

What to do when it’s bitterly cold, however, changes from district to district.

Washington Local developed guidelines several years ago for dealing with cold weather, Superintendent Patrick Hickey said, to determine when to close or delay schools. At about 5:30 a.m., if the temperature or windchill measures between -10 degrees and -19 degrees, the district will be put on a two-hour delay. If the temperature is below that, schools will be closed, he said.

District calculations get more complicated on days that start with delays from the cold. Administrators check forecasts to see if temperatures will rise throughout the day. On Friday, for instance, temperatures stayed below -10 degrees in the morning, prompting the district to close. Mr. Hickey said it didn’t make sense to delay schools for cold weather and then not close them when temperatures remained the same.

Washington Local leaders’ sensitivity to temperatures grew since the recent recession, Mr. Hickey said, because poverty rates in the district more than doubled.

“Many of those kids aren’t prepared with hats and gloves,” he said.

Toledo Public Schools also takes economic conditions into account when deciding on school closures. In 2010, budget cuts prompted TPS to cancel high school bus service and expand walking zones from 1 mile to 2 miles.

That means more children are walking on sidewalks, or sometimes streets when sidewalks aren’t cleared, Mr. Gault said.

The Toledo district has an added complication: It’s one of hundreds of districts implementing new evaluation systems for educators. The new statewide system incorporates student test-score data and classroom evaluations to rate teacher and principal effectiveness, and TPS is in the midst of its first round of scheduled evaluations, said Kevin Dalton, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers.

Closures are also disrupting a preassessment period for staff members who teach subjects not on state tests. Districts come up with their own measurements for those subjects. Mr. Dalton said he was concerned the snow days will mean evaluations and assessments will be rushed, resulting in unfair evaluations of staff and potentially hurting their careers.

“It makes it even more difficult to complete what was already a difficult task,” Mr. Dalton said.

Mr. Gault acknowledged the closures complicate the evaluation system, and said the days off mean less prep time for students on the statewide tests. He said the district likely will consider extending the timeline for evaluations.

“When we are out like this, it does add more pressure,” he said.

Perrysburg Schools ran out of its five allotted snow days Friday. Superintendent Tom Hosler said if the district needs to use additional days, they will be tacked on to the school year.

The academic year ends June 5, so another snow day would push it back to June 6. Mr. Hosler said if there are two or three more snow days, the year would continue into the next week in June. If the district sees five or more days, though, he would consider shortening spring break or other days off before the end of the school year.

In canceling days because of cold weather, Mr. Hosler considers the distance children walk and the amount of time they wait at the bus stop. Perrysburg, like many districts, also uses a National Weather Service chart on the effects of windchill. He said there isn’t a certain degree of windchill for which school is immediately canceled, though — the district plays it by ear each morning.

“It is a guideline,” he said.

The Sylvania district uses -15 degrees as a general benchmark to close schools, Superintendent Brad Rieger said, though that’s a sustained -15 degrees, not just from wind gusts.

“I think it’s just a tolerance level that we think is reasonable for kids to be outside in,” Mr. Rieger said.

Friday was scheduled to be a day off for middle and high school Sylvania students so teachers could grade exams.

That means elementary schools have been closed six days, while other grades have been closed five.

But upcoming cold temperatures may force schools to close again, meaning older students could join the elementary schools in spending parts of summer in class.

“This has been an incredibly oppressive, intense January,” Mr. Rieger said.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: or 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.