Although often universally welcomed by students, snow days can come at a price in the midst of an unforgiving winter.
While most Chautauqua County schools have not exceeded the number of snow days they have allotted themselves for the year, contingency plans must be made in the event that districts have to make up for lost time.
The number of days built in for snow or other emergency-related purposes varies by district, but a recent state mandate calling for 180 days of school attendance each year makes snow days a precious commodity. And while closures due to snow accumulation are the most common, schools have to use their allotted snow days carefully in light of a variety of unforeseen circumstances.
Tim Mains, superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools, said there could be any number of situations that could force schools into a day of closure.
"Every circumstance is a unique opportunity to evaluate what the weather and road conditions are, what the weather is doing at the moment and what it is likely to be," Mains said. "You have to look at all the information you have available regarding weather predictions and the impact they have on the passability of the roads. Besides that, I have people on the ground and out and about in the community telling me what conditions are like at each individual school."
In order to ensure that the 180 required school days are met, districts generally implement a plan of action should they exceed the number of allotted snow days. Referred to as "taking back" school days, districts must look at holding classes on days that were originally scheduled to be part of school breaks and vacations.
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According to Danielle O'Connor, superintendent of Frewsburg Central School, her district already has a backup plan in place.
"We would have to start by adjusting our calendar," she said. "The first day to take back would be the Friday before Memorial Day weekend (May 23), and that would become a day of instruction. I think we have the Monday off following Easter (April 21), and that would be our second day."
"I certainly understand that families have plans during that vacation time, so we would try to minimize the impact on family time as much as possible," she added, noting that Frewsburg still has two allotted days remaining before the plan would take effect.
Despite the fact that taking back school days out of planned vacation time is not necessarily ideal, Mains said he would do it unflinchingly if it meant the safety of his students and staff.
"If I have to take a vacation day, I have to take a vacation day," he said. "The decision to close or delay should always be based on trying to do what is safe for my students. If it is clear to me that conditions are just not safe, then I need to cancel or delay."
Another option schools can consider is instituting a two-hour delay in order to see if conditions improve. Kaine Kelly, superintendent of Sherman Central School, said his district recently had an opportunity to successfully utilize a two-hour delay rather than closing for an entire day.
"When dealing with a snow event that's already happened, the two-hour delay buys us some time to make an educated decision and make sure our kids can get into school safely," Kelly said. "And it gives the town and village people time to clear the roads while our staff could clear the sidewalks and parking lots."
Although a useful alternative option, the two-hour delay is not readily available for all area school districts. Some schools, such as Frewsburg, had not previously established the capability to employ two-hour delay and have recently taken measures to change that.
"At Frewsburg, we have not traditionally had two-hour delays," O'Connor said. "However, at our recent Board of Education meeting, I did provide a proposal to the board about putting a two-hour delay plan in place. We would use that plan sparingly because of parent work schedules and child care issues, but it does give us an alternative to a full-day snow day."