Michigan school districts burning up their snow days

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Children fly down the sledding hill at Heritage Park in Farmington Hills on Monday after school was called off.

Michigan school districts that closed this week in response to severe weather conditions are inching toward running out of allowable missed days and could be faced with adding school hours or days to make up the time.

Michigan K-12 districts must provide 180 days of instruction to students every year.

State law provides districts with six days of “forgiven time” that can be used when school is canceled due to conditions outside the control of school officials, such as severe storms, fires, health conditions and infrastructure issues.

The law says these days can be used at any point throughout the year without prior Michigan Department of Education approval, as long as the cancellation falls within the language of the law.

The state superintendent also has the authority to give districts up to three additional days of “forgiven time” to be used when instruction was not provided due to "unusual and extenuating occurrences resulting from conditions not within the control of school authorities."

Hundreds of school districts closed this week when weather conditions became dangerous. Some closed on Monday and most closed Wednesday and plan to be off Thursday. Several districts have already closed school before this week, which means many are getting close to that six-day limit.

On Tuesday, Sheila Alles, interim state superintendent, sent a memo to every district in the state telling superintendents that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's executive order for a State of Emergency in Michigan does not call for the required closing of schools.

"That remains a decision by local school leaders," Alles said.

Alles's memo said if a school district chooses to cancel classes through this weather emergency and it causes them to exceed the allowable six days of forgiven time, that the State School Aid Act allows up to three additional days through an “additional forgiven time waiver.

Randy Speck, superintendent of the Madison School District in Oakland County, said Wednesday that student and staff safety is always going to be his first priority when deciding whether to cancel school.

His district was closed Jan. 22, Monday, Wednesday and will be again on Thursday, which means he has used four of his six days.

"The fact is hundreds of schools districts are in the same boat," Speck said citing Alles' memo. "And if over the next 30 to 45 days, we are still having extreme weather, my understanding is the state will be working with us,"

Speck said in the event he needs to add time to the school calendar to make up for missed days, he would just turn a half day into a full one.

"They are enjoying the days off now, but they may need to make them up," Speck said.