Short on snow days

LISBON – Students across the county could have a longer school year if more bad weather is in store, and forecasters are already predicting more freezing weather next week.

Frigid temperatures resulted in some schools canceling classes Friday, while others operated on two-hour delays.

Schools were allotted five calamity days by the state this year. Crestview used its fifth day this week, while East Palestine, Columbiana, Lisbon, and Leetonia are at three and four days used. Minerva, located mostly in Stark County but a portion of which is in Columbiana County, used its fifth day Friday.

Crestview Superintendent John Dilling said the closure on Wednesday was based on a power outage that affected the entire district.

He believed the outage was caused by a fire in an Ohio Edison substation, but that could not be confirmed through Ohio Edison Friday evening.

Dilling said another closure about two weeks ago was due to a waterline break in the performing arts center that affected the middle school cafeteria. Freezing temperatures were to blame.

The district has called four two-hour delays so far this school year and on Friday operated on a delay because of single-digit temperatures.

Dilling said some of the delays did turn into closures as the need became more apparent.

For now the district is looking at adding more days to the end of the school year should another cancellation be needed, but he said the board of education will be looking into the use of “blizzard bags,” an alternative calamity make-up day option through the Ohio Department of Education (ODE).

The option allows students to catch on up instruction at home using a computer.

“We are going to look at that as a possibility simply because we are only in January and we have a long way to go,” he said.

Districts in Ohio can only use that option for three days. After that, a longer school year becomes necessary.

Leetonia schools were on a two-hour delay Friday because one bus wouldn’t start, Superintendent Robert Mehno said.

The district only has one more calamity day at its disposal, and Mehno said the administration was considering canceling classes Friday but opted for the delay instead.

“It was touch and go,” he said, adding the transportation department was able to get the bus started in time once the delay was in effect.

The district has five buses that run regular routes and uses another as a spare. Bus drivers are responsible for taking the buses home at the end of each day.

Columbiana Superintendent Don Mook said his district is fortunate to have a bus garage.

“The advantage of having a bus garage is more times than not, you are probably not going to have a bus that is not starting, and you don’t have to clear snow off of them,” he said.

Dilling said his district may not have a garage, but some buses are housed in the three maintenance bays on occasion. The diesel buses also have block heaters.

“With this cold weather we always worry about them. The one day that we had the waterline break after the extreme cold we did have a few buses that did not want to start, but we got them going,” he said.

Lisbon Superintendent Don Thompson said his district has been fortunate so far that it has not dealt with any frozen pipes or buses that won’t start. The buses are housed in a garage.

Like Columbiana, the Lisbon district has used three calamity days and operated on a two-hour delay Friday.

“Sometimes when the weather hits you end up making an early morning decision versus the night before. I know that there were some situations where folks made decisions the night before and then didn’t get the weather we were expecting, and that makes it difficult,” Mook said, referring specifically to Dec. 6.

While Columbiana operated on a delay some other districts canceled classes the night before due to weather predictions of what he described as “massive amounts of snow.”

“There isn’t an exact science. We try to make the best decision,” he said.

His argument for staying in session as much as possible is that he is considering those students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches.

“Some of our families are counting on a quality nutritious meal that is provided for based on their need. When we don’t have school, we are not going to be able to provide them that meal. That plays heavily into the determination,” he said.

Safety of all students, however, is always a main concern, he stressed.

Delays do have to be reported to the state.

East Palestine also had a two-hour delay Friday.

Superintendent George Fisk said there is one more calamity day available, and the administration is considering what to do once it is used.

Blizzard bags are an option.

“We are discussing that now as to what our plan may look like and we may try to talk to the board about that in February,” he said.

The district runs eight buses regularly and does not have a garage, although buses are plugged in overnight to keep from freezing.

“Our transportation department does a great job of making sure our vehicles are as winterized as we can get them and as prepared as we can be,” he said.

The district’s closures were weather related with the exception of the recent water outage, although that was caused by freezing temperatures affecting water lines.

Salem Superintendent Tom Bratten said the foremost priority is the safety of students – 1,100 of the district’s 2,300 students are walkers.

Salem also utilizes “blizzard bags” and, like Crestview, has used all five of its calamity days.

With more bad weather looming this week, Bratten said he will do what he has to do for the safety of students. Even if that means an extended school calendar to compensate for days lost this winter.

“I will not put the kids at risk,” he said. “We will go into July if we have to.”

This is a particularly challenging time to miss classwork because of statewide testing. But, Bratten, emphasized, “I can live with some bad scores if it meant kids didn’t get hypothermia.”

He said often times on bad days, some students are kept home anyhow, creating half-empty classrooms. That means that teachers would have to teach the same lesson twice.

Minerva Superintendent Joseph Chaddock said his district has not called any delays yet, and is anticipating more freezing weather next week.

“This is shaping up to be a pretty solid winter. They are calling for Monday night temperatures of 13 or 15 below- without the wind chill – and Tuesday night like 10 below,” he said.

His administration is also discussing the use of blizzard bags.

The district’s 16 diesel buses are housed outside, and Chaddock said there were issues with the buses following the “cold snap” after New Year’s.

“We had major transportation issues,” he said.

The decision to cancel classes is also based on the fact that the rural district has “walkers,” which are students who are not picked up at their homes, but at a central location.

“We really worry about our little guys, little girls, and their safety,” he said.

The superintendents contacted said they are preparing for the state change that moves away from calamity days and tracks missed school time by hours instead.

The change is slated to take effect the next school year and according to Thompson actually gives districts more time at their disposal.

“Instruction is the key to everything so we want to be here all that we can, but it does give a little bit more flexibility. I don’t see much change next year,” he said.

According to ODE information schools will have a minimum requirement of 1,001 hours of instruction at the high school level.

Dilling also doesn’t anticipate any major changes. He said Crestview has already planned for 178 instructional days next year and the calendar will be similar to its previous calendars.

The board is slated to vote on the calendar at the February meeting.

Mehno said he is waiting for more information from the state before making any decisions.

“The interpretation about how to adopt your calendars is different. That is something we are definitely going to monitor,” he said.

He and Mook have been in contact regarding the legislation, he added.

Mook said that based on his calculations, the Columbiana district will have roughly 24 days at its disposal that could be used as “calamity days” under the new equation.

He explained 178 regular instruction days translates to 1,262 hours, which is already over the minimum requirement of 1,001 hours.

Two hour delays and early releases would then count against districts, he noted.

Fisk said the East Palestine district is grandfathered into the current system until 2016.

“We don’t transfer into that system until our current collective bargaining agreement expires,” he explained.

Chaddock said his district has already adopted its calendar for next year with no major changes.