School districts across Michigan are facing a conundrum this week: For every additional day they cancel classes in the face of snow and arctic cold, they will likely need to add time to the school clock or calendar to make up for it.
That’s because under state law, districts must provide a minimum 1,098 hours of instruction to K-12 students. Some districts provide only the minimum, while others go above it by a few days.
And although every district is given six snow days to use, some districts already have reached or exceeded the limit, and others are likely to do so this week, in the face of wind chills as low as minus 25 degrees this morning and Wednesday morning. At least according to the calendar, there are still nearly eight more weeks of winter.
The impact of Tuesday’s frigid cold was felt beyond classrooms and workplaces. Across the region, the homeless, many who were resorting to “survival tactics,” were being ushered into warming centers and shelters around the clock; in a rare move, the University of Michigan canceled classes, one of hundreds of school systems across the state to bow to the freezing temperatures.
While reluctant to further disrupt students from learning, school officials say the dangerous conditions leave them no choice.
“A number of roads are rural and they ice over real quick and they don’t get plowed over quick,” said Joe St. Henry, a spokesman for the Lake Orion Community Schools, which will use its 10th snow day today. The northern Oakland County district also was shut Monday.
“When we close, it usually is because of the rural roads. It’s not safe for buses,” he said. “This has been a really unique winter, no question about it.”
Schools in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, as well as districts in the Thumb, the state’s west side and northern Michigan, closed to avoid sending children out into dangerous weather conditions. Among them is Detroit Public Schools, the state’s largest district, and Utica Community Schools, the second largest.
In addition to U-M, Oakland, Eastern Michigan and Wayne State universities closed their campuses or canceled classes.
State education officials said they are not tracking how many snow days each district has used this year, but excessive snow days have been a problem statewide. Michigan has 548 traditional public school districts and 296 public school academies or charter schools.
“I can tell you that a lot of schools across the state are at or close to the limit,” MDE spokesman Bill DiSessa said.
Under legislation signed last year by Gov. Rick Snyder, districts that have more than six snow days have the choice between longer days for the rest of the school year or adding days at the end of the year. Any district that does not schedule extra days or hours will receive less school aid, DiSessa said.
A decision on whether districts will add hours or days is far off.
“Winter is only one-third over,” St. Henry said. “District officials are meeting today and talking about the weather. They are talking to various principals at our schools on options that work out best for families.”
Helping the homeless
Schools aren’t the only ones scrambling to cope with the cold.
Metro Detroit homeless shelters and warming centers said they are doing what they can to help protect the homeless from the arctic conditions.
Cass Community Services was already over capacity Monday evening with more than 50 women and children its warming center. But with life-threatening temperatures, the shelter didn’t want to turn anyone away, said volunteer Stephanie Stephens.
“We’ve been really busy, but it’s important (to bring people inside) because people could get frostbite,” Stephens said.
The center has one driver sweeping through the city in a van to bring homeless people off the street, Stephens said.
Arlisa Wilson of Detroit said she was disheartened after calling several shelters for help and learning they were full before she found refuge with Cass Community Service, where she was given an air mattress to sleep on before lights out.
“It’s probably the coldest I’ve ever seen it before,” said Wilson, “I’m so sorry for those who couldn’t make it to a shelter tonight.”
Operation Get Down in Detroit also sent volunteers out to find the homeless and take them to a shelter, said Sandra Bomar-Parker, the nonprofit’s CEO. On Thursday night, security staff found what they’d hoped to avoid: a homeless man who had been staying at the center was found, unconscious, in a snowbank nearby.
“We’ll be picking up earlier and letting out later,” Bomar-Parker said Monday. “Our usual hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but we’ll be starting at 4:30 p.m. ... and we’ll hold them until the temperature goes up to at least above 10 degrees.”
According to the National Weather Service, that won’t happen until Wednesday, when a high of 12 is forecast. Today’s high is expected to be 4 below zero.
By Monday night, Operation Get Down had about 130 people at its warming center near the Packard Plant on the city’s east side. Case worker Richard Anderson said the homeless often have to adopt “strange survival tactics,” so the staff has nurses and medical interns to treat some of the needy.
Michael Waite of Waterford, who was staying at the Operation Get Down on Thursday night, said he’s used to the cold after living on the streets on and off for three years.
“I was living in abandoned homes’ backyards ...” Waite said. “I wear like three T-shirts, four hoodies, ski pants and four layers of underwear.
But Thursday night, he said, was different: no careful layering of clothes was going to stem the cold.
Michigan has more than 93,000 homeless people statewide, according to the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness, based in Lansing. Detroit has nearly 20,000 homeless, according to the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. Macomb County has about 1,000, according to the Macomb Homeless Coalition. The Alliance for Housing of Oakland County estimates there are more than 3,300 homeless in Oakland.
Snow days piling up
Extending school into the third week of June is not a problem for Lake Orion parent Julie Curcio, who said she is against adding minutes to the school days of her children, who are in fifth and eighth grades. The district’s scheduled last day is June 13.
“Adding minutes is not fulfilling the education requirement. It just looks good because they are in the building,” she said. “If they are really concerned about education, they need to provide full instruction and full days for what was missed.”
Curcio says she understands hazardous weather conditions and roads forced another school closure.
“It’s getting really old. I wish they were in school. They were bored,” she said.
Other districts, such as Berkley, have built additional days into the school calendar. That means going above six snow days does not pose a problem for the Oakland County district — for now.
“We have used six snow days and on Tuesday we are closed, so that’s seven,” district spokeswoman Jessica Stilger said. “But we do have a cushion with hours and days above state minimum requirements. So we have not developed a plan to add days.”
Year-round districts like the Education Achievement Authority in Detroit don’t need to add days. The EAA averages 1,470 hours of instruction at the K-8 level — about 50 more instructional days — and 1,365 hours for high school students, EAA spokesman Terry Abbott said.
Both are well above the state minimum of 1,098 hours.
'The story is the cold'
This is the snowiest January in Metro Detroit history, with more than 38 inches falling this month, said weather service meteorologist Matt Mosteiko.
“We’ve set a new record for the amount of snow for January but that’s not the real story,” said Mosteiko, working out of the White Lake Township station. “The story is the cold.”
The culprit behind the frigid weather is an arctic high pressure front that came through southeastern Michigan on Sunday night and Monday morning.
According to weather service records, if January were to end today, it would be the eighth coldest January on record.
Staff Writer Charles E. Ramirez and the Associated Press contributed.