Schools are back in session, but calendar discussion just beginning

Much to the relief of district officials and parents, the Greenwich Public Schools were able to reopen on Wednesday after cleanup from Hurricane Sandy was able to make the roads safe for buses and pedestrians.

The district missed six days of school as a result of the storm, which single-handedly wiped out the five “snow days” built into the calendar to allow for inclement weather. Now the district is looking at a potential calendar crunch if there are any more canceled school days between now and the end of the year, meaning that either days would have to be removed from the April recess or added to the end of the year.

To try and alleviate that crunch, the district announced this week that school would be in session this coming Monday, Nov. 12, which had been the scheduled observation of Veterans Day. That day had been set to be a staff development day with students having the day off. On Monday, Superintendent of Schools William McKersie said that school lessons that day would have a focus on veterans.

 

“We will make sure schools honor veterans,” Dr. McKersie said. “I am the grandson of a veteran. I’m the son of a veteran. I will reach out to the veterans organizations in the next few days to assure them that we will be honoring our veterans.”

Dr. McKersie said this decision was made unanimously by the Board of Education and has the “strong consensus” of school administrators. The decision is technically not official yet since the Board of Education has to formally vote on it and must do so in an open session with proper notice. Board Chairman Leslie Moriarty said that this would be done at tonight’s meeting, which starts at 6:30 at Cos Cob School and will also include the first presentation of the 2013-14 school budget.

This is the third major storm to have a large impact on the school year within recent years. The March 2010 nor’easter canceled school for a week, putting the district in the same position it is in now. The state mandates that schools be in session for 180 days and if school is canceled on more than the allotted number of snow days, the district has to make up that time. Last year, the start of the school year was delayed three days because of Hurricane Irene.

Having school on Veterans Day has been a touchy subject in the past. Previous attempts to have schools open on Veterans Day as part of the regular calendar were met with protests from veterans groups, but this year there appears to be no outcry, given the extenuating circumstances. Christopher Hughes, a Marine veteran and head of American Legion Post 29 in Greenwich, said he understood the need to have the day in school and noted that since the official observation of the holiday is Sunday, Nov. 11, the district’s children would still have the chance to observe the annual ceremony scheduled that day at 11 a.m. outside the town’s War Memorial on Greenwich Avenue.

“Schooling for our children is critical so I have no problem with this,” Mr. Hughes told the Post.

The district was able to make the decision to reopen the schools after bus and pedestrian routes were deemed safe by the Greenwich Police Department and district officials on Tuesday morning. Buses were sent out on “dry runs” because in order for school to be opened the buses could not go over or go near power lines or go over or under trees that are leaning.

“I might be able to drive under a tree that is leaning, but a school bus cannot,” Dr. McKersie said. “We have a high percentage of children in our district who bus and we’re not allowed to put them on those buses unless it’s safe.”

Dr. McKersie said that throughout the storm, the coordination between the district, the town and the state has been excellent. He said it was frustrating to not have been able to reopen the schools on Monday since power had been restored to all the buildings and the town had deemed the school campuses safe for use, but due to all the winding roads in town and the number of trees, safe passage for buses and pedestrians had to be the chief concern.

Dr. McKersie said he had gotten a lot of support from Connecticut Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor, who had spoken with him on multiple occasions to find out if there is anything he could do to help get schools open. After the 2010 nor’easter there were discussions about asking the state for a waiver of the mandate to have 180 school days because of the weather circumstances, but Dr. McKersie said he had not yet discussed that with Mr. Pryor but that it could be discussed with him and other districts in the future.

The board is expected to have a discussion on possible calendar alternatives at tonight’s meeting. Ms. Moriarty told the Post that the district, as it has traditionally, had 181 academic days on the calendar, giving a little flexibility in meeting the 180-day requirement. By adding Veterans Day back to the schedule, the district now is once again at that 181-day level, but given the uncertainty of the weather Ms. Moriarty said it might make the most sense to begin planning ahead.

In recent years, the district has exceeded its allotted snow days, but last year aside from the canceled days at the beginning of the school year there were no snow days needed.

“You can’t predict the weather but we want to make sure that if there are changes that our staff and our students have some kind of advance notice,” Ms. Moriarty said.

With winter looming the district may pre-emptively add scheduled off days back to the calendar. That means there could be discussion of having classes on the three single off days left on the calendar, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Good Friday and Memorial Day. Traditionally the district has either removed vacation days from the planned April break or added days to the end of the school year to make up for missed days. This year the school year will end on June 24, which is already a bit later than usual.

“Those are the days we would likely look at first,” Ms. Moriarty said. “The single days could also be on the table. We will see what the board wants to do and if it wants to be proactive about this.”

Ms. Moriarty said her personal preference is to take action now in case of more weather cancellations. She said doing so allows teachers and families to plan accordingly.

“I think we should be able to identify some days right now and decide if we want to either move on adding them to the calendar or if we want to hold them in reserve and let people know that it is something we are looking at,” Ms. Moriarty said. “I think I would like to look at two or three days from the April break. But we will have our discussion and we will see what comes from it.”

 

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