At just after noon on Thursday, Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Superintendent Scott Hannon gazed out the window of his district office at a clouded gray sky. Not a flake of snow had fallen yet, despite blizzard warnings given Wednesday that predicted Winona area roadways would be impassible Thursday morning. The predictions prompted school and other emergency closures, but as the hours passed Thursday, Hannon began wondering whether the district could have offered classes and granted an early release, rather than canceling school for a fourth day — followed by a fifth on Friday — a number that will likely require district officials to make some tough decisions about how to make up the time.
"I kind of feel like 'Chicken Little' staring out the window," said Hannon before the snow burst from the clouds Thursday afternoon and caused havoc across Minnesota and Wisconsin. Hannon used a complex system of calls and inquiries, along with a National Weather Service school predictor program, to make the decision Thursday and Friday to cancel school. And even though the storm rolled in later on Thursday than predicted, Hannon said the safety of students and families is the biggest priority for emergency closure decisions.
The National Weather Service Friday predicted breezy conditions into the weekend, but no chance of snow save a "slight" one slated for Monday.
WAPS snow days exhausted
Last year, the Minnesota Legislature changed the state law dictating how much time public school students must be in school. The previous statute required a certain number of days for elementary and secondary students; the new statute requires that the school calendar contain a certain number of hours. The language, said Hannon and WAPS Human Resources Director Pat Blaisdell, does not appear to require that students actually spend those hours in the classroom, nor does it outline any mandatory makeup days for emergency closures.
However, WAPS employee contracts also dictate how the district must handle making up for emergency closures. A memorandum of understanding requires district administrators to consult with union representatives before scheduling makeup days, and the district only considers scheduling makeup days after more than three school days have been cancelled. Educational assistants earn approximately 13 "banked hours" at the beginning of the school year, and must use those hours in order to collect a full paycheck in weeks in which school has been called off. After the 13 hours, educational assistants may use personal or sick leave to make up the pay. The teachers' contract, on the other hand, requires that they either work on the closure day, or make up the hours, adding that any makeup plan must be agreed to by the union. The contract also states: "When days are made up according to a makeup plan, teachers will not be charged for leave days granted on the day the emergency closing occurred."
Hannon said he is working closely with union representatives to ensure that the district's plan to make up any classroom time is agreeable to district employees. He's currently eyeing a scheduled early-release day in April as a chance to make up some hours, and is scrutinizing the rest of the scheduled calendar year to find more time. District leaders have often hesitated to add days in June to replace days when schools were closed for emergencies, because families often have made summer plans, and, said Hannon, the hot days in summer near the end of the school year are not very productive for students. Adding back two hours to a scheduled early-release day in April, he said, would probably include more student learning than an entire day in June. Several teacher workshop days scheduled in the coming months, said Hannon, might not be a good time to make up the days, either, since families may have planned for the three- or four-day weekend.
Since the new state statute does not provide for penalties to the district if students are not in class for the mandated number of hours, Hannon said he isn't certain whether all emergency closure days beyond the first three will be made up, especially if we have a winter similar to the last, when snow days were still being called in May. However, "I think we've got an obligation to our taxpayers that we educate our children as much as we can," he said.
Hannon will continue to watch the weather, and said the fact that the district has already missed five days does drive up the stakes in determining whether to cancel future school days. But he says he has a good system in place; he uses National Weather Service tools for school districts, and he gets up early and drives the hills on Garvin Heights to check the roads. He usually pulls over near the Winona Equestrian Center, checks the radar on his smartphone, then calls the Winona County Highway Department to see how plowing is going, and calls neighboring district superintendents to hear about real-time weather just over the WAPS district borders. Then, he makes the sometimes difficult decision, and WAPS administrators begin the alert system to get the word out to parents, employees, and the media.