Western Pennsylvania schools taking snow days in stride
By Megan Harris
Published: Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014, 11:21 p.m.
If two feet of pristine, powdery snow blanketed Pittsburgh overnight, Quigley Catholic High School students would still rise at dawn, roll out of bed to email their teachers and start a school day from the relative comfort of their Western Pennsylvania homes.
“We haven't called a snow day in five years,” technology coordinator Mitch Yanyanin said. “If we know it's coming, we tell everyone to stay home the next day. If we don't, sometimes we delay, but we love this system. Our students and staff are home safe, and no one misses any classroom time.”
Persistently frigid weather and snow showers conspired to sap school districts nationwide of snow and calamity days built into otherwise meticulous calendars.
Districts in Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas have reported as many as 16 snow days so far, while a few districts in Wisconsin have yet to call their first. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton called a statewide cold day when temperatures dipped to minus 23 degrees in early January, the state's first since 1997.
In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education reports data up to a year after the snow days were taken, spokesman Tim Eller said, but the local process is consistent from state to state.
For game-time decisions, superintendents start checking forecasts and radar about 3:30 a.m., often on advice from other superintendents, local public works departments and the district's transportation company. By 6 a.m., whatever they decide is final.
Quigley Catholic educators bucked that system five winters ago when they started a free extension of their existing website in which teachers post their lessons using free services such as Google Docs. A school secretary collects roll-call emails from all 147 students early in the day. If someone reports in late or fails to email, he or she is marked tardy or absent just like a traditional school day.
“We rely on the public schools to bus our kids, so on days with heavy snow, some would have class, and others would cancel,” he said. “We had days where a third of our student body was absent.”
Under the new system, the school typically records just one or two absences, he said.
Pennsylvania requires its K-12 schools to complete 180 days of instructional time by June 30 each year but lets regional districts set calendars around their own parameters.
This winter, Norwin and Greater Latrobe have taken five snow days. Franklin Regional, Penn Hills, Quaker Valley and Derry Area reported four. Late-January calendar revisions at Elizabeth Forward show teachers will work through June 20.
After three days off, K-11 Shaler Area students will likely make up at least one day in June. Just one more snow day would affect commencement, set for June 13, officials said. The board is considering letting seniors come in on Saturdays for graduation rehearsal in lieu of postponing.
Greater Latrobe Superintendent Judy Swigart said snow days are “par for the course” during winter and more of an inconvenience than a real concern.
“Obviously, it would be great to not have any, but when you live in Western Pa., generally that does not happen,” she said.
In 2008-09, the district endured 11 snow days — the most in recent memory, Swigart said.
Greensburg Salem school directors proposed forgoing the three-day Easter recess rather than extend the school year.
Pittsburgh Public high school basketball teams at Brashear, Allderdice and Carrick all played games on four consecutive days last week to make up for those canceled during inclement weather.
Clairton coach Matt Geletko credited most of his team's nine postponements to opponents based in snow-covered regions south of Pittsburgh.
Like many other schools, Clairton enforces a rule that states no extracurricular activities will be held if classes are called off for the day.
The high volume of snow days prompted state officials to extend some standardized testing periods by a week. Officials in Indiana, Michigan and Ohio have considered similar testing schedule and school calendar extensions.
“In my 21 years as an administrator, this is the first time that I can recall that they offered an opportunity to do that,” Ligonier Valley Superintendent Christine Oldham said.
Oldham said the district had testing schedule concerns in 2010 when school was canceled 10 times because of weather. Students have missed seven days this year.
Staff writers Stacey Federoff and Nicole Chynoweth contributed to this report. Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at 412-388-5815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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