From classroom trends to school board decisions, Class Act will keep you updated on all the school issues followed by the Star Tribune’s education reporters. Contributors include Steve Brandt, who covers Minneapolis; Kim McGuire, who covers the west metro; Erin Adler, who covers the south metro; Anthony Lonetree and Libor Jany, who cover St. Paul and the east metro, and Paul Levy and Shannon Prather, who cover the north metro.

Is it time to drain the pipes at MN schools?

Posted by: Steve Brandt Updated: January 27, 2014 - 3:34 PM

[Update:  With cancellations Monday and Tuesday, some districts, such as Minneapolis, will be in session only 13 of the 31 days of January. Some haven't notched a full week of classes since before Christmas break]

Is it time to rethink the school calendar, given the recent aversion by school administrators to holding classes during extreme cold?  Or is it time to better employ technology to keep students headed to school in subzero weather?

Those questions arise after a review of the January calendars of two large school districts in a month in which weather is playing havoc with school events

In Eden Prairie and Minneapolis, for example, schools will be used for classes on less than half the days of January.

At a minimum, both districts will not be in session for classes on 16 of 31 days the buildings will heated this month. That's without knowing whether more school days will be canceled next week when the cold returns.  The same pattern is probably true of many districts around the state.

The January calendar in both districts loses eight days to weekends, as usual, plus three more lost to the end of the holiday break.  That break was extended by two days due to two days of classes canceled during cold weather earlier this month, plus Thursday's cancelation for cold. Both districts also took a day off on the Martin Luther King holiday.  Both are also giving students a day off this month at the semester break, which teachers use as a grading day. That fell on the Friday of MLK weekend in Minneapolis, and neatly falls on Monday in Eden Prairie, meaning school officials there won't face a cancelation decision for that day, with an overnight low of -21 degrees forecast.

The cold weather cancelations come atop two additional days of school lost at 20-some Minneapolis schools without air conditioning when record heat struck during the first week of school in late August. The district says those days don't need to be made up but still hasn't made a decision on using the two makeup snow days on June 9 and 10 to offset the three days lost so far this month to cold.

But could technology help overcome the bus waits by students that are the chief culprit behind cancelling school?

One possibility would be using the GPS capabilities with which many school buses are already equipped to provide real-time information to parents with smart phones on how far the bus is from their children's stop. Metro Transit already does this for metro buses.  A short wait reduces the risk of frostbite.

Yes, only 56 percent of American adults owned a smartphone as of last May, but that figure has been rising by about 10 percentage points annually, according to the Pew Research Center.

Moreover, 81 percent of the people age 25-34  -- those most likely to have small children -- own smart phones. And among the one-fifth who don't, it's possible that their student or a neighbor owns one. Is there a digital divide by race? Yes, but it may not be the one that you're expecting. Blacks and Latinos lead whites in cell phone ownership by 11 and seven percentage points respectively. Those in poverty or with limited education do lag in smart phone ownership, but they likely know someone who owns one.   

Of course, schools and districts with longer academic calendars don't feel the loss of snow or cold weather days as much as those without as much cushion. For example, some charter schools, presumably in air-conditioned quarters, have a much shorter summer break, in hopes of minimizing the summer academic slide for their students. That lessens their dependence on winter classes.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Education has not adjusted its March 10-May 8 window for statewide standardized tests in the wake of lost days, saying that it provides sufficient flexibility for closures.

(Cold weather has affected schools in various parts of the nation; this photo is from the Philadelphia Inquirer.) 

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