Minnesota’s record-setting run of winter weather — and the seemingly never-ending stream of school cancellations — has school districts around the state scrambling to make up for lost time.
Already, many schools have burned through the extra days built into their calendars to account for weather-related closures. Now, school leaders must figure out how to add hours back into the school year without upending the lives of students, families and teachers.
Several districts are canceling planned holidays and teacher-training sessions, or contemplating tacking on days in May or June. A few schools are adding minutes to each school day. Some administrators are calling state lawmakers to ask for something even bigger: an exemption from the state’s instructional time requirements.
Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said the discussion about snow days and school calendars has spilled over to the State Capitol because the winter has been so unrelenting — and because school leaders know it’s far from over.
“One of the reasons we’re so interested in having the conversation is it’s only Feb. 20,” he said earlier this week, on a day when a snowstorm closed schools around the state and officially made February the snowiest in Minnesota history. “We’ve still got the rest of February. And March. And April.”
Changing the state’s rules about the length of the school year, even temporarily, would require the approval of the Legislature and Gov. Tim Walz. Though the governor has said he wants to prevent schools from being penalized for “keeping students safe” during extreme weather, he can’t act until lawmakers give him a bill to sign. So far, lawmakers have not introduced any school-hours bills, though House Education Finance Chairman Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis, said he and others at the Capitol have been talking and thinking about the issue.
Davnie said he expects the Legislature will respond to the school calendar crunch this session, though he’s not yet sure how.
“We can be a very partisan bunch, but at the end of the day everybody knows we live in Minnesota,” Davnie said, “and we might need to do something.”
But as the school year ticks by, school administrators know they can’t afford to wait on the Legislature.
Some districts already have sprung into action. In Stillwater and Hastings, this week’s planned Presidents’ Day holiday for students became a regular school day. Across the river, the Hudson School District in Wisconsin canceled several planned late-start and early-release days and added a few minutes to every school day for the rest of the school year.
Several districts, including Robbinsdale, Farmington and Albert Lea, declared “e-learning” days for some of their cancellations, taking advantage of a new state law that allows schools to count up to five days of at-home learning as official instructional days for the school calendar.
While a few districts still have some “extra” days in reserve — including Minneapolis, which has canceled six school days but could afford three more — many have hit their limit. St. Paul Public Schools were closed for a sixth time this week, one day more than the five snow days the district built into its calendar.
District spokesman Kevin Burns said officials are determining whether to extend the school year or add a day before that point. Similar conversations are underway in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, where a staff training day may become a school day.
Burnsville schools have added two days in late February and early March, while the St. Cloud district added one in May.
Officials with the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the state’s largest, are keeping a close eye on the forecast; any additional snow days could require changes to the school calendar.
Teachers around the state said they are glad their districts have made students’ safety a priority. But they also acknowledged that the siege of school cancellations has made for a trying time in some classrooms. Amber Serfling, an elementary school special education teacher in Grand Rapids, said the unpredictable schedule is particularly challenging for students who need routines to be successful in the classroom.
“We’ll have a good behavior plan in place, a good schedule in place, and all of a sudden, it’s: ‘Oh, just kidding, now you have three days off,’ ” she said. “It’s kind of like starting all over again.”
Greta Callahan, a kindergarten teacher at Bethune Community School in north Minneapolis, said snow and cold are a challenge, whether or not the district calls off classes.
“If there is school and heavy snow and extreme temperatures, my attendance is super low anyway,” she said. “I have to re-teach the next day and get us back into a routine no matter what.”
Teachers said everything about the weather can prompt concern; if school isn’t called off, they worry about students stuck waiting at bus stops, or walking to school in dangerous conditions. When it is canceled, there are concerns about child care and meals; many parents can’t afford to take the day off, or they depend on free and reduced-price lunches provided at school.
Andrea Rautio-Sandrock, the mother of a toddler and a second-grader who lives in Castle Rock, said this year’s school cancellations and calendar shifts have been a hardship for her family on a number of fronts. Every unexpected day off means a day her son, who has special needs, goes without both the specialized instruction that helps keep him on task and the reduced-price lunch he gets at school. And it requires child care at home. An unexpectedly longer school year means the family must reset summer plans.
With more snow in the forecast for the weekend, Rautio-Sandrock said she’s starting to ponder what life would be like in a place with a more moderate climate.
“We discussed moving today,” she said. “Not necessarily somewhere warmer, but somewhere with less snow.”