As Harford school closings mount, spring break is in jeopardy

Harford school officials wait, watch the weather, as closings mount

Harford County Public Schools classes were canceled Monday for the eighth time this year because of weather, and it isn't looking so good for the rest of this week.

With a threat of freezing rain Tuesday afternoon, Harford schools closed at their regular times, but canceled all afternoon and evening activities.

The rain and snow mix overnight Tuesday resulted in a two-hour opening delay Wednesday morning. After school and evening activities were expected to go on as scheduled.

A snowstorm is in the forecast for late Thursday morning, with multiple forecasting outlets saying accumulations could be significant.

Because of the heavy snow in the forecast, Patterson Mill High School's production of "Hello, Dolly!" slated for Friday, Saturday and Sunday is being postponed until Saturday, March 14 and Sunday, March 15, the school announced Wednesday.

With Monday's cancellation of classes, the end of the school year has been pushed back to Friday, June 19, and any more missed days are likely to be taken from the scheduled spring break for students April 7-10. (Good Friday, April 3, and Easter Monday, April 6, are school holidays required by state law.)

According to the HCPS website, if any spring break days are needed for make-up days, they will be taken in descending order, staring with Friday, April 10 down to Wednesday, April 8.

Joseph Licata, the school system's chief of administration, said Tuesday there may be some adjustments in the spring break plans, however, depending on how the March weather finally shakes out.

"We want to come up with a reasonable plan, but it may be too early to tell," he said, noting the school system's final weather related closing last year was on St. Patrick's Day, March 17. "What we do want to be is as pro-active as possible, recognizing many families have plans for spring break."

The school calendar identifies April 9 and 10 as staff professional development days, when teachers and other staff are supposed to be at school, but students are off. If either is used as a make-up, Licata said, there are options for making up the professional development days, such as rescheduling them in June after classes end for students, using teachers' free time within the school day or, if need be, canceling them altogether.

State law requires students to be in school 180 days over 10 months. There are provisions for the Maryland State Department of Education to grant waivers for some missed days because of weather or natural or civil disasters, if county school officials demonstrate they have made a good-faith effort to comply with the law.

With Monday's cancellation and planned make-up on June 19, HCPS will be right at the 180-day mark, depending on what happens the rest of the year. Eight days were tacked on at the end of the calendar for bad weather contingencies, which took it to 188 days, with the intention to end school earlier, if one or more of the days wasn't needed for making up missed time.

Licata said the situation this year is approaching the point where school officials may consider requesting waivers for missed days, but he cautioned MSDE "is requiring more and more hard evidence that you have tried to tackle these missed days with make-up days."

Because of so much school time devoted to mandatory testing, he explained, "unless you have a massive snowstorm that affects the whole state," it is going to be difficult to persuade MSDE to relax the rules.

"We will have to see what develops the next few weeks," he said.

Last school year, HCPS missed 12 days for snow and ice problems. MSDE did grant HCPS five waivers and, as a result, classes for students ended on June 12. The majority of the state's other 23 districts received multiple waivers from missed days, as well.

From the standpoint of determining when schools need be closed for inclement weather or open late, Licata said this winter has been unusual in a couple respects and school officials are not any more or less cautious when making those determinations.

When schools were closed on Friday, Feb. 20, after temperatures reached zero the night before in some areas and were still in the low single digits by sun-up, Licata said it was only the second time he could remember in his 30-plus years with the school system that extreme cold temperatures forced such a decision. In this instance, they made the decision to close early on the evening of the 19th.

"We had mechanical problems related to cold in something like 24 of our buildings," he explained, but also driving that decision is that school buses run on diesel which can make them difficult to start in extreme cold.

With bus drivers having to report to do safety and equipment checks between 5 and 5:30 a.m. before starting on their first runs, Licata said there was a concern some pickups would be delayed.

"The wind chill was something like minus-23; you don't want to have students out in that waiting for a bus that is 25 minutes late," he said. The same goes for having to send them outside, if something malfunctions inside their school, he said.

"More than anything, our decisions this year have been affected by timing and forecasts," Licata continued. "We use several multiple forecasts for outlets and we are constantly on alert for changes. But we have had several times this year where the forecast said the snow would arrive at the time our buses are on the road, and then it either didn't come or it was too late to change."

The staff, from Superintendent Barbara Canavan down though the facilities and transportation departments, starts monitoring weather conditions by 2 a.m. and has to be aware of the timing issues, Licata said. Once buses get on the road and families, students and staff are notified school is on, it's all but impossible to reverse course should the weather take a turn for the worse.

With Monday's closing and counting the earlier closings, two-hour weather days and two scheduled holidays, HCPS students have not had a full five days of instruction in any of the seven weeks since they returned from winter break Jan. 5.

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