Snowed: How a silly political gimmick is causing havoc for Maryland teachers, students and parents

When Baltimore City schools officials asked the state Board of Education for a waiver from the rule that systems have at least 180 school days per year, the board said no. It was the same when Wicomico County asked and probably will be the same if and when other districts make that request.

And you may find yourself saying, as we do, good for them for sticking to the 180-day requirement. If anything, 180 days is too few for kids to be in school. Surely the better option would be for the districts to simply extend the school year by another couple of days in the summer, right?

Sadly, no. Thanks to Gov. Larry Hogan, that isn’t possible.

It’s not just that Mr. Hogan, in a crass bit of political populism, jumped onto Comptroller Peter Franchot’s pet issue of forcing school districts to start after Labor Day, and that he decreed that school must close by June 15 each year in an effort to dodge criticism that he was swapping days at the end of the summer for ones at the beginning. It’s that he crafted his executive order in such a way that it ties the state board’s hands and prevents it from responding rationally to something genuinely unpredictable, like, say, a major snowstorm on March 21.

When Governor Hogan first issued his executive order, members of the state board, including his own appointees, were none too fond of it and all but invited districts to apply for waivers. So he issued Labor Day Order 2.0 in 2016, specifying that the board could only issue waivers in specific circumstances. One of those is for emergency school closures, but it was written in such a way as to be useless if districts do face a truly unexpected emergency.

The order says that the board can grant a waiver to either the start or end date to the school year for such reasons only if a district has closed for 10 days per year in any two of the previous five years because of “natural disasters, civic disasters or severe weather conditions.” That works out for Allegany and Garrett counties, which both applied for and got waivers to start the 2018-2019 school year in August. But it’s of no use to the vast majority of Maryland counties that typically aren’t forced to close on so many days because of weather.

In an effort to fit in mandated holidays, traditional vacations and professional development days, Baltimore City schools only built three snow days into its calendar this year. The system has typically closed for about five days due to weather in recent years, so the calendar required a little bit of luck but wasn’t crazy. And the city schools were hardly alone in undershooting the mark. Anne Arundel also only allowed for three snow days in its calendar, and as of Wednesday, it had used them all. District officials said if they have to close again on Thursday — certainly within the realm of possibility — they will petition the state to be open on the mandated Easter Monday holiday, as Baltimore City has already done. Howard County built five snow days into the system, but Wednesday’s snow forced it to use a sixth. Officials there say they will be requesting a waiver, too. Depending on how long the clean-up from this storm takes, other districts could find themselves in trouble as well.

Compounding the issue is that districts have few options at this point in the year for cramming in extra days. Spring break starts next week, so shortening it at this point is going to be an invitation for mass absences of teachers and students. Schools could open on Memorial Day, which apparently isn’t sacred in Governor Hogan’s calendar but is in those of many others. Next year, when schools will have to close for election day and both Jewish high holidays fall on weekdays, the situation will be even worse.

But that’s what happens when the governor and comptroller insist that summer has to be summer, even when spring is winter.

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