Pa. bill gives school districts flexibility with snow days

Senate measure would change calculation, allow class on some Saturdays



In yet another indication of how hard winter weather hit this year, the state Senate has approved legislation that would allow school districts to measure instructional time by hours rather than days and to use Saturdays for make-up sessions for days missed due to snow and extreme cold.

The goal of the bill is to eliminate the need for districts to extend the school year into late June to make up days missed because of weather. It applies only to the current school year and is essentially a rewrite of legislation approved in 1996 after severe flooding in northwestern Pennsylvania forced the closing of schools.

The Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to send Senate Bill 1281, sponsored by state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, to the House in the hopes that it will get quick approval and provide districts with options for making up days missed this year because of snow and severe weather.

"Following this very severe winter, which resulted in an unusually high number of school cancellations and delays across the state, many school districts have asked for additional flexibility to make up missed days," Mr. Corman said in a news release. "This bill would enable schools to make rescheduling decisions that are in the best interests of students and families."

The state Department of Education requires public schools, including charter schools, to provide a minimum of 180 days of instruction each school year. The Senate bill does not waive that mandate and schools can currently apply for a waiver.

Tim Eller, spokesman for the education department, said section 1504 of the Public School Code allows a district to seek approval from the department to calculate by instructional hour rather than 180 days. To do so, a district must demonstrate that it will provide 450 hours of instruction for half-day kindergarten, 900 hours for grades 1-6 and 990 hours of instruction for grades 7-12.

The school code also allows for schools to use up to three Saturdays in the 60 days leading up to graduation for graduation practice for seniors and to have these days counted as instructional days. This is an option only for the senior class.

But Senate Bill 1281 would allow school districts to calculate their school year on an hourly rather than daily basis without a waiver and to hold class on one Saturday per month to make up missed school days. All days must be made up by June 30.

If Saturdays are used for instruction, the bill allows students to be excused on Saturdays for religious or other activities, and districts that schedule instructional days on Saturdays cannot schedule tests on those days, according to the legislation.

Jamie Baxter, director of legislative policy and advocacy at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said an informal poll conducted of local school districts showed that most had either scheduled enough snow days or changed their school calendars to hold classes on days that were originally scheduled off, such as Presidents Day, to meet their 180 requirement.

"Based on that very informal survey, it appears that districts here probably won't use this legislation [if approved]," Ms. Baxter said.

Tina Votjko, spokeswoman for the Quaker Valley School District, said her district built six snow days into the 2013-14 school year and used five. "So we do not have to tack on any days in June and the students do not have to come in on any day they were not already scheduled to be here," she said.

However, in the North Hills School District, school was canceled three days because of severe weather and make-up days were scheduled for Presidents Day and April 17 and 21. "Unless we have some weather event that forces us to take a large amount of days off, we should be OK," said spokeswoman Amanda Hartle.

But Ms. Baxter said her colleagues on the eastern side of the state said their districts are expected to take advantage of the flexibility if the bill is approved.

"I talked with a counterpart in Montgomery County and was told that this is a big deal for them. In their neck of the woods because of mild winters they didn't incorporate a lot of snow days into their calendars and some are thinking of going pretty long into June at this point," Ms. Baxter said.


Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1590.

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