April snow brings scheduling headaches for area schools

MARSHALL – While spring officially began a month ago, it is difficult to convince people in southwestern Minnesota of that. In fact, it hasn’t been anything like a typical spring, especially when it comes to school disruptions.

As if one major snowstorm in April wasn’t enough, a second one caused additional scheduling nightmares for most area schools last week. And now a third storm, beginning Monday through today, is threatening to push the school year calendar back even further.

“I’ve been in education for 20 years, and this is the latest I’ve ever seen any winter weather or school closing due to weather,” said Joe Meyer, high school principal at Murray Country Central. “It’s very bad in April, especially when you go all winter without any snow days, though we had a couple for cold weather. When you have your first snow day in the middle of April, it’s odd. Then, when you throw in all the spring school activities, it becomes an even bigger headache.”

Originally, MCC planned to dismiss students for the school year at noon on May 30. But after dismissing school early on April 9 and canceling school classes April 10-12 and again on April 19, the schedule now extends into June.

“Those are never easy decisions, to call school off or have late starts,” Meyer said. “A lot of factors go into it. Parents don’t always understand all the dynamics. But we always try to keep kids’ safety as our number one priority. Our students are dispersed throughout the whole county, so we have a wide area. There’s been times where one part of a district is OK and others are not.”

Between heavy amounts of snowfall and extremely windy conditions, travel has not been very nice the past two weeks. A large number of homes throughout the Slayton area also suffered ice damage and the loss of electricity, which was a huge factor in closing school April 12.

“We had quite a few homes that did not have electricity, some in town and out, too,” Meyer said. “And the roads have been bad. It’s frustrating, but what can you do?”

While the MCC staff and students in grades K-11 will have extra days tacked on to the end of the school year, seniors will still have graduation on May 26. Their last day is May 21, unless they have some makeup work to do.

“The schedule for seniors will not change,” Meyer said. “They don’t have any state testing required, unless they have to make up a grad test. Other than that, they’ll be wrapped up. They have to get ready for graduation, and we have to have all their grades in to make sure they’ve met grad standards.”

Other districts that follow a typical school calendar, including Dawson-Boyd, Wabasso and Lake Benton, will likely extend the school year into June as well. Nearly all of the school districts that are part of the flexible learning year (FLY) will also be adding onto the calendar year but are two weeks ahead since they begin the school year two weeks before Labor Day.

“As an administrator, this winter weather in April screws things around a little bit,” said Loy Woelber, superintendent at Tracy Area and Westbrook-Walnut Grove schools. “We already have a makeup day for Friday (May 17) for a snow day about a month ago. Now we’re going to make up two more days on May 20 and 21, with a teacher workshop the following day.”

Woelber pointed out that a survey had recently been sent out to area superintendents to assist each other in making tough decisions.

“We had two options for altering the calendar,” Woelber said. “We could forgive two student days and instead of one teacher workshop day, we’d have three teacher workshop days, or the students would be expected to make up both days.”

TAPS and WWG both chose to do the latter, and the plan of action seemed plausible, that is until additional snowfall forced the districts to cancel another school day (April 19). No decision has been made yet as to when or if the day will have to be made up.

The schedule for seniors will not be altered, however. For both districts, graduation will be May 19.

“We won’t have the seniors come back after they get their diplomas,” Woelber said. “That would be trouble. And, what are we going to have them do, pick up sticks?”

Woelber noted that community service days could be another possibility for students.

“A lot of these classes have juniors and seniors together,” he said. “We don’t want these kids there just to make a statement either. We have done some community service projects in the past. We’ll see what happens.”

At Marshall Public Schools, the scenario is similar to smaller, neighboring districts but not quite to the same degree. Students will attend a full day of school on May 16 and go till noon on May 17 to recoup snow days. The seniors graduate on May 17.

“Between 70 and 75 percent of our students live inside the city limits,” Marshall Superintendent Klint Willert said. “That makes Marshall more unique than some of our neighboring districts. If they said they’d only pick up kids on passable roads, they’d have no kids in school. That’s the nature of the business.”

The ultimate issue, Willert said, is student safety, noting that parents always have the right to make their own decisions on whether or not to send a child or children.

“They’re tough decisions to make,” he said. “You can have a lot of range in weather in a very short amount of time. We would have never imaged we would be dealing with snow decisions in the middle to latter part of April. I cannot remember a time like this.”

Meyer said his biggest concern right now is the mandated state testing.

“We’re right in the middle of that,” he said. “The window is only open so long through the state, so we’re scrambling to get these in. There’s been a lot of rescheduling.”

Like most area administrators, Willert agreed.

“Testing has really been put in a tailspin by a few factors,” he said. “The very first day of testing, the state system crashed. We had all these testing plans, and they fell through. Thousands and thousands of students were affected statewide. Then, we had the weather-related events.”

The biggest challenge in regard to testing this year has been at the middle school, where all four grades are tested, Willert said.

“Many of the assessments are online now, and there is limited computer time to do that,” he said. “You can only funnel so many kids through a lab, so it is a challenge. The middle school staff has done a great job of juggling that, but there’s still some uncertainty.”

Testing is scheduled for the remainder of the school year at Marshall, with May 16 plotted out as the final makeup day.

“We try to do our best to manage it, and we certainly want to provide a quality testing experience because we know how high stakes they are,” Willert said. “And, weather can be a distraction.”

While Marshall hasn’t had to close as many times as most area schools, the late starts and early outs have also caused disruptions.

“We schedule a lot in the morning times, so we can catch students coming in,” Willert said. “Changes in the schedule can interfere with students’ ability to complete the tests. It’s something you certainly never anticipate you’ll ever have to work through, but here we are.”

Willert also acknowledged that pushing back the school calendar because of weather has the potential to begin conflicting with community education and faith-based organizations that start programming immediately after the original end date, as well as interfering with vacations or summer jobs.

“There are a lot of dominos that start to fall,” he said. “It makes those decisions much more complex. But like I told a couple of other superintendents lately on the phone: ‘all you can do is play the hand you’re dealt.'”