Editorial: Too many snow days? Give schools flexibility

The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared education in Michigan to be in a state of crisis at last week’s State of the State address. She’s correct in calling attention to what’s ailing public education. Given this reality, it’s not a good time for students to be spending less time in class.

Regarding education, Whitmer said: “It impacts every one of us — our employers, our workers and all of our children. Today, third-graders in Michigan rank in the bottom 10 in the country in reading. The bottom 10.”

That’s a problem.

And it's why we’re concerned some lawmakers want to give schools a free pass on making up a growing number of snow days this winter. Current state law allows districts six days for emergencies, such as snow and freezing temps. And schools can seek waivers for three additional days.

More:Michigan lawmakers may forgive emergency snow days

This year’s Polar Vortex and other harsh weather have caused some districts to blow past those allotments, which could potentially harm their funding from the state if they don't receive waivers or plan to make up those days. Many districts are reportedly past nine missed days, and some have reached as many as 16.

New legislation, which appears to have bipartisan support, would extend waivers for days missed during a state-declared emergency.

Children fly down the sledding hill at Heritage Park  in Farmington Hills on a snow day Monday, January 28, 2019 one of many off days from school due to snow, ice and extreme cold weather this winter.

School superintendents can’t control Mother Nature, and they aren’t to be blamed for canceling class to ensure students’ safety. But they should have a plan for making up so much lost learning time.

And the Legislature should give them as much flexibility as possible.

Lawmakers ought to encourage schools to employ a year-round calendar that could more easily accommodate make-up days. Michigan currently forces school districts to apply for waivers if they wish to have a year-round schedule -- or even just start before Labor Day. The tourism lobby has fiercely defended Michigan’s rigid start date, even though it’s not in the best interests of students to have such a long summer break.

More:Editorial: Give schools green light for early start

Each year, a growing number of districts are applying for these waivers, and those school leaders should be commended for thinking outside the box and doing what’s right for their students.

The Legislature should also give districts the green light to employ other tools, such as competency-based learning that centers on students’ reaching mastery of a subject rather than simply the number of hours spent in a classroom. Former GOP Rep. Tim Kelly spearheaded this innovative schools plan last fall, but it died in lame duck.

More:Jacques: Don't crush school innovation

It would be worth reviving.

In addition, it is the 21st century and technology offers schools many options outside the boundaries of the classroom. Teachers should harness online learning — especially for older children — during days when students can’t physically be at their desks.

Lawmakers, while working with school officials, should use this opportunity to think beyond the problem at hand and offer districts actual flexibility for innovation in their school calendars.