Snowed in [Editorial]

For the first time in recent memory, this year's exceptionally harsh winter may require some tweaking of Maryland's 180-day school calendar. State School Superintendent Lillian Lowery says she may grant waivers of up to five days to school districts that have exceeded the number of scheduled snow days because Mother Nature didn't cooperate with their plans. Without the waivers, she said, some schools would have to stay open until the last week in June to satisfy a state law that requires students to receive at least 180 days of instruction a year.

There's no doubt the heavy snowfalls this winter wrought havoc with county school calendars. Many districts have missed 10 to 13 school days so far, more than twice the number they budgeted for. And in a few counties it never seemed to stop snowing. Garrett County had 20 school closures due to snow this year, followed by Allegany County with 16. Though in retrospect one could quibble over whether all those closures were necessary given the accumulations that actually occurred, school officials couldn't know that from the forecasts, and they were surely right to err on the side of caution.

But the result is that the schools now have to make up the time they lost during their unscheduled snow days, and there aren't that many ways for them to do it and still close for summer recess sometime during the first half of June. Every school district has a slightly different calendar, and there also may be minor scheduling differences between high schools, middle schools and elementary schools within the same district. But all of them generally close around the same time, so that if they're forced to push back the start of summer recess more than a few days, they'll begin to bump up against families' plans for vacations, summer camp and other seasonal activities.

Added to that, of course, is the fact that there's often not a whole lot of learning going on in June anyway; the kids are ready for a break, the weather is hot and people are eager to get out of doors. The snow days of this winter will seem long over and far away by then.

That's why schools should be looking to make up for lost time by using professional training days and perhaps shortening their spring break. But for those who have missed more than two weeks of classes, getting a waiver from the state for a shortened school calendar may be the only alternative to keeping students in school nearly into July. Ms. Lowery has said schools that can show they've made an "earnest" effort to comply with the 180-day rule deserve favorable consideration if they apply for a waiver.

Yet this situation should also give state officials pause over the practicality of the 180-day rule, which after all is a holdover from the state's agricultural past when families needed their children to be available in the summer to help plant and harvest crops. Today that rule is largely irrelevant to what the vast majority of young people are engaged in during the summer months. In fact, it may even be irrelevant to the state's original goal of ensuring that young people in the state receive an adequate education that prepares them for adulthood. There's a good argument to be made that, far from being too long, the current school calendar isn't long enough to provide the kind of in-depth education today's student need.

Students in Australia, Iran, Denmark, Germany and Japan attend school for 200 or more days a year, for example, while in China the school year runs from the beginning of September to mid-July, with students spending the summer months taking additional classes or studying for exams. Clearly educators in those countries don't think 180 days is too long, and the academic prowess of their students suggests the extra days they spend in school are paying off. With air-conditioning in most of the state's schools, there's no reason Maryland couldn't lengthen its academic year too — whether or not it's snowing outside.

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