Md. senator proposes bill that would ease rules on school days lost to bad weather

A Maryland senator has introduced a bill that would offer legislative relief for the loss of school days by recognizing the rare occasions of state of emergencies.

Senate Bill 1049, introduced by Senator Joseph Getty, R-District 5, says that if the governor declares a state of emergency because of the weather, then those missed school days would not have to be made up by Maryland school systems. The school districts also would not have to seek a waiver from the state concerning not making up those days.

The bill has passed the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and the House is expected to have a hearing on the bill in the coming week.

It's not the first time Sen. Getty has introduced such a bill. When Carroll County Public Schools missed 10 days of school during the 1995-96 because of inclement weather, specifically the "Blizzard of 1996," Getty introduced House Bill 1050.

At the time, it received a favorable report from the House Ways and Means Committee and after a clarifying amendment was added on the House floor, it passed the full House by a vote of 132-7. The bill, however, did not make it through the Senate.

After Governor Martin O'Malley declared a state of emergency this February, Getty decided to resurrect the bill, and the Senate found it to be very reasonable, he said.

There's a lot of strategic effort that goes into trying to get the school calendar back in order after many inclement weather days are used. The State Board of Education offers waivers, but doesn't release until March what the waiver will allow, Getty said.

"When they decide, most schools have implemented a plan and sent out notices," he said.

Waiver requests for missed school days while there wasn't a state of emergency could also be submitted, Getty said.

"It offers a better response than what we have now," he said. "My view is it's fundamentally fair to the students."

When the bill was first introduced in 1996 to the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee, the senators were quite skeptical and insisted children needed all of the required 180 days of instruction.

Getty said that in many cases, students are not in the same classes or the same units they were working on when the original instructional time was lost. Making up the time in June, at the end of the year and after all standardized testing is complete, is frequently superfluous time, he said.

School delay, closure decisions

When school is closed due to inclement weather, Carroll County Public Schools hears a lot of feedback. During each storm, half of the feedback is in agreement with the call that was made and half of the feedback is opposed to the decision, according to Assistant Superintendent of Administration Jonathan O'Neal.

"We try stay consistent with processes and make the best decisions we can," he said.

Since Carroll County had 12 closures this year due to inclement weather and seven delayed openings, O'Neal gave a presentation to the Carroll County Board of Education Wednesday about how the decision is made to close or delay school. He also thanked all the agencies involved with making the decision and plowing sidewalks, roads and parking lots.

The process involves a lot of coordination between county agencies and school system departments both the night before the weather event and early the morning of, he said. Because of all the snow this past winter, school system transportation and facilities management employees were out on the roads checking on driving conditions and clearing parking lots and sidewalks during 38 days this school year.

"There's a lot more days than just the ones that end up being events where people are involved," he said.

Technology Services employees also have to look at servers and connections to make sure the networks are up and running, while the community and media relations office is responsible for sending out alert messages when school is affected by inclement weather. Depending on the timing of the storm, the director of athletics may need to be consulted.

If a state of emergency is declared, school buildings can be used for shelters, and that affects school operations.

The more than 60 independent bus contractors that work for the Carroll school system become part of the process too, and officials from other school systems in the state are called to get an idea of the weather that may be coming to Carroll.

"Not to base our decision on what they're doing, but to get a sense of what's going on elsewhere," he said.

As much data as possible is gathered through weather forecasts, employees and outside agencies by phone, text, email and the county radio network, O'Neal said.

"Our folks go out in the morning, and as they identify trouble spots on roads, they're calling the county and the county's headed to those trouble spots," he said.

Transportation employees are on the roads as early as 3:30 a.m., breaking up the county into sections to investigate roads and checking on the Facilities Department to see the progress they are making at school buildings. They have to consider power outages in schools, as well.

The school system is not divided into weather zones because feeder patterns, or the movement of children from one level of school to the next, is not uniform in the county, O'Neal said.

"We have to look at it as a countywide decision," he said.

O'Neal said the goal is to find out if conditions are OK for travel, especially for school buses, and if sidewalks and parking lots are ready to go.

"If you can send your student on the bus on the day of a weather event, we strongly, strongly encourage you to do that," he said. "That's the safest form of transportation."

Director of Transportation Services Michael Hardesty calls O'Neal at about 4:45 a.m. to make an initial recommendation. O'Neal then calls Superintendent of Schools Steve Guthrie, who makes the final decision.

"A decision has to be made by 6 a.m.," he said. "We try to make that sooner, if we can."

The decision has to be made because buses start to pick up children around that time, O'Neal said.

The choices that can be made include a closure, a two-hour delayed opening or a delay with a reevaluation for closure. For the last option, the final decision must be made by 7:45 a.m. It is decided whether to have offices open at the same time, but it's a separate call.

"By 10 a.m. or 11 a.m., I know whether or not I was part of a good decision or a bad decision, and we own that," he said. "You get it really right sometimes and sometimes maybe not as much so."

Board member Jennifer Seidel said she appreciates the thoroughness of the decision. As a parent, she liked being told if there was a delay with a reevaluation for closure.

"I think that's very helpful to parents to get the mindset that this decision might change," she said. "As opposed to the decision changes without that piece."

Board Vice President Jim Doolan, who was in the transportation department for 22 years, said he does not miss snow watch. He also thanked the families of the individuals who get up early to monitor inclement weather or clear snow.

Board President Virginia Harrison said she once joined the transportation officials one morning when they were on snow watch. She described the experience as "very exciting" and "quite dangerous."

"It's not until you take that ride that you really do appreciate what they do for us and our schools," she said.