Winter closures have schools seeking waivers, more school days

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Teonna Garner, 14, Peyton Piccinini, 15, Mekhi Davis, 15 and Dreylon Johnson, 15, discuss a lesson during freshmen honors world history class at Madison High School in Madison Heights on Friday.

With state aid on the line, some Michigan school districts have asked the state for more forgiven time off while others are adding days to their calendars after brutal winter weather forced them to close for more than seven days this school year.

State law provides districts with six days that can be used when school is canceled due to conditions outside school officials' control, such as severe weather, fires, health conditions and infrastructure issues.

As of Tuesday, 100 Michigan school districts had sought waivers from interim state Superintendent Shelia Alles for additional excused days after many had surpassed the six allotted. The state superintendent has the authority to give districts up to three extra forgiven days.

Michigan Department of Education spokesman Bill DiSessa said of those, 97 are asking for three additional days and three are asking for one additional day. 

Weather conditions forced hundreds of districts to close again on Tuesday, pushing most past the six forgiven days allowed by the state. This comes as state education officials have scheduled the winter Count Day for Wednesday, a critical day for children to be in seats so districts can get the maximum amount of state aid allowed based on pupil counts.

Districts that cancel school on Count Day can request an alternative Count Day waiver from the state superintendent to hold the count the next day school is in session, said Jessica Beagle, a financial analyst with the office of financial management at the Michigan Department of Education.

Districts are awarded state aid based on the number of students counted in their district. State aid is also awarded based on daily attendance for a district. If attendance falls below 75 percent, districts risk not getting the full amount of state aid budgeted.

One Metro Detroit superintendent said Count Day or not, if weather conditions are dangerous, he would cancel school.

"If the weather is bad we would close. Student safety is more important than Count Day. We would more than likely be able to have count day on Thursday," Novi schools Superintendent Steve Matthews said on Tuesday.

Children fly down the sledding hill at Heritage Park in Farmington Hills on a snow day on Jan. 28, one of many off days from school due to snow, ice and extreme cold weather this winter.

Meanwhile, two state lawmakers want to help Michigan school districts cope with the challenge of repeated snow days.

On Tuesday, Michigan Senate Minority Leaders Jim Ananich, D-Flint, introduced a bill that would not count snow days that occur during a state of emergency. 

"Given the extreme, rare weather we’ve experienced this year, it’s critical that we give school districts flexibility with their calendar," Ananich said. "Many districts have already run out of cancellation days, and there is still a month of winter left to go. Districts shouldn’t be punished for making the safest decision for students, especially in state-of-emergency situations."

Last month, Alles sent a memo telling superintendents that an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for a state of emergency during subzero temperatures did not call for the closing of schools.

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

The state of emergency lasted five days, running from Jan. 29 through Feb. 2.

State Rep. Ben Frederick, R-Owosso, announced Tuesday he is working on a solution to help school districts throughout Michigan that have exceeded the number of snow days allowed for the year.

Frederick also said school districts should be held harmless for closures that occur during a declared state of emergency.

“The extremely cold temperatures combined with hazardous road conditions at the end of January made for a dangerous situation. Closing school wasn’t so much of a choice as it was a necessity,” Frederick said. “When the weather is so bad emergency officials are telling people to stay off the roads in the interest of public safety, it makes good sense to forgive those days.”

Under that plan, schools that close during any weather-related emergency declared by the state of Michigan would be granted amnesty.

The closures would not count toward the six days that are currently allowed, nor would they count toward the three additional “unusual or extenuating circumstances” days allowed subject to state superintendent approval, Frederick's staff said.

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said he cannot cite the specific number of districts seeking waivers, but many of the 550 his organization works with are.

"We do know there are a substantial amount of districts that will be requesting a waiver for one or more of the three days possible for forgiveness from the state superintendent," Wigent said. 

One school, Bentley Community Schools in Flint, is adding two additional days of school to its calendar after experiencing 10 days of school closure due to brutal winter weather. On another day it missed its attendance goals, which means it has 11 missed days in all.

School will be in session on April 22 — a previously planned day off — and the school year will also be extended until June 14, according to a letter from Superintendent Kristy Spann.

Wigent said another school superintendent sent a survey to the community seeking input on when to add days.

"However for most, this really seems to be a work in progress as it has been a moving target," Wigent said. "And with even more days possible in some districts this week, the numbers could change again."

MDE's DiSessa said the forgiven time application asks districts to list all closures and include a reason.

"The request must also demonstrate how the district initially prepared for cancellations for the current school year, as well as indicate how they might improve upon their planning process for the subsequent school year," DiSessa said.

For instance, some districts build in extra days and might have 182 or 183 days in their calendars. 

Almost all past waiver requests have been granted, he said.

DiSessa said some districts might add instruction days during the school year to satisfy the minimum instruction requirements without seeking waivers for additional days, but others can ask for the waiver.

Hundreds of school districts closed on Tuesday after being closed for up to four or five days last week when weather conditions became dangerous. 

In Oakland County, the Madison School District in Madison Heights is seeking the waiver for additional days after the district exceeded the six-day allotment provided by the state.

"It is day seven (five actual snow days and two days we didn't make our attendance numbers)," Superintendent Randy Speck said on Feb. 6. "Those (other days) were bad weather days, but we were still in session."

Ben Harwood, principal of the Madison High School, said adding days to the calendar does not work for his school where professional development is scheduled for after half-days of school and a graduation date is already set for seniors. The attention spans of students shrink as the weather warms in June, he added.

"It's different for each school and each level of school," Harwood said of the school with 315 students. "We are a small school with small class sizes, and it forces us to teach to different learning styles and levels anyway."

Students were able to work on projects at home during school days via computers, Harwood said.

"You can continue some of the learning at home, continue on a discussion board on a cell phone," Harwood said. "Our staff is young, creative, nimble. They are tech-savvy."

One of the biggest concerns for students outside lost instructional time, Harwood said, was the three residential goats that call the school's courtyard home year-round.

"Some students, when we came back, the first thing they did was run over the window and asked if the goats were OK. They were fine," Harwood said.

While many students across K-12 celebrated the snow days as a chance to get a break from school, missing school can be hard for some students who rely on a warm building and two meals a day at their building, Harwood said.

Teachers, meanwhile, have had to push due dates back for assignments to keep students on task at the district and some students have fallen behind after missing days beyond the snow days, teacher Sara Black said.

"I can achieve what I need to, but it was a crazy start the new semester," said Black, who teaches art at Madison High School. "I think we should stick the schedule and make the lesson work."

Detroit Public Schools Community District closed for five days in late January and earlier this month. It closed on Feb. 6 and Tuesday, using its sixth and seventh days. DPSCD superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he is seeking a waiver from the state for additional exemption days. 

"At this point, we are not in a position to cancel our other breaks on the calendar. The waiver is to be filed once your six days are used. That was today so we will submit now," said Vitti, adding that many districts and charters in Wayne are in the same position as his district.

Matthews of Novi said his district was on its sixth snow day Tuesday, and if the bad weather continued, he would seek a waiver.

"Today is Day 6. We’ll let winter play out, and if need be, ask for a waiver when this is over. Chances are we will ask for a waiver in April," Matthews said.