Districts considering options in wake of snow days

It was the text message that 14-year-old Alyssa Bell had been eagerly awaiting since the snow started falling two days earlier: No school tomorrow due to the weather.

The Bismarck-Henning High School freshman's 2-week-long winter break was coming to an end. So, she was thrilled to have another day to sleep in.

But by Tuesday — her seventh snow day in three weeks — Alyssa was ready to go back to school to see her friends and make up a basketball game that had been canceled.

She wasn't alone.

"I'm so ready for her to go back," said Missy Bell, Alyssa's mom. "I understand the purpose of canceling school. She rides a bus and if something happened to the bus, I wouldn't want her to be stuck in the cold. But she's had way too much downtime. I'm tired of hearing, 'I'm bored.'"

Kids may have enjoyed their extra time off. But schools officials point out that all of this blowing snow and low temperatures have caused districts to already max out — even exceed — their emergency days, and push the end of the school year from late May back an extra week or week-and-a-half into June.

"I don't ever remember a year when we used all five days by the end of January," said Scott Amerio, the Rantoul Township High School district's superintendent. "We may have used all five or come close, but not this year."

"I sure hope we don't have anymore days," Bismarck schools Superintendent Scott Watson added. "But that's out of our control. You're fighting Mother Nature and are at her mercy."

Illinois public schools are required to schedule at least five emergency days into the year, said Mary Fergus, a spokeswoman for the State Board of Education. They can be used at the district's discretion, but must be made up before the end of the year.

Catholic schools in the Peoria Diocese also have five days built into their calendar, said Patrece Klein, principal of St. Matthews School in Champaign. The school, which was in session on Tuesday, has used four — so far.

Champaign public schools have used four emergency days, one of them a faculty institute day that won't affect students, according to spokeswoman Stephanie Stuart. However, most districts in East Central Illinois have reached or exceeded five.

If public school districts go over that number due to a condition beyond their control, they can modify their calendar to make up those days, Fergus said. Or, they can request approval for an "Act of God" day from the regional and state superintendent's offices.

"They do that when there's a ... condition that poses a hazardous threat to the health and safety of students," Fergus explained.

The request can be made online. It must be made within 30 days.

"It's certainly not anything you need approval for before the day off," Fergus said. "If weather conditions are unsafe, (local officials) are going to make the call and then get the approval. And as long as they meet the criteria and show that the condition posed a threat, they will most likely be approved."

Now, area school boards will be considering their options.

"More than likely, we'll ask for 'Act of God' days for the other two," Watson said, adding that will be discussed at a Bismarck board meeting next week.

Officials at the Rantoul Township High School district will consider another option, Amerio said.

The district marked its sixth snow day on Tuesday. That will push the last day of school for just under 800 students in the district from May 27 to June 3.

Amerio said the district will either request an Act of God day — or it may have students attend school on Feb. 14, now a teachers' institute day on the calendar.

But "we haven't even been in session to be able to talk about what we're going to do yet," he said.

Mahomet-Seymour has had five snow days. Superintendent Rick Johnston could only recall one time when a district he worked for, Mt. Carmel, exceeded that number. He has spent 32 years in education.

While the snow days will push M-S students' last day back from May 29 to June 5 — a teachers' institute will be held on June 6 — it won't affect graduation, Johnston said. It's been a long-standing tradition to hold commencement exercises on Memorial Day weekend.

"Typically, seniors are done two weeks before the last day," he said.

Officials in other districts, including Catlin, may discuss making up days over spring break in March. But Amerio and Michelle Ramage — the superintendent of Rantoul City Schools, which maxed out its emergency days this week — are hesitant to take that route.

"We did not build any additional contingency days into our calendar this year. Because nothing was scheduled in advance, I don't think it's fair to families to change the scheduled days off when they might have plans," Ramage said.

"You can't just spring that on them at the last minute," Amerio added. "If we had prepared them for it at the beginning of the year, I wouldn't be so hesitant."

Watson said Alyssa and her mother aren't the only ones who are looking forward to schools reopening.

"I think everyone's ready to get back into their routine — students, parents. I know our staff and administrators are," he said.

School's out

A sampling of how many days area school districts have canceled classes due to cold or snow this winter:

Bismarck-Henning 7

Catlin 8

Danville 7

Champaign 3*

Mahomet-Seymour 5*

Rantoul City Schools 5*

Rantoul Township HS 6

Urbana 5

*-Does not include one teacher institute or in-service day

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