Youngsters across Maine enjoyed a day off from school Monday because of snow, and students in Portland and South Portland had a second snow day thrown in on Tuesday.
But there will be a price to pay come June.
In most districts, each canceled day is tacked onto the end of the school year. If the snow days keep piling up, districts also could reschedule teacher in-service days to be used for classroom time. The Maine Department of Education requires public schools to provide 175 days of student instruction each academic year.
Portland and South Portland school officials called a second consecutive snow day Tuesday because sidewalks and roads remained unsafe after a storm dropped about 16 inches of snow on the area Sunday and Monday. For both districts, it was the fifth snow day of the season.
South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said sidewalk conditions were still treacherous on many streets Tuesday morning because the snow was so deep, high winds made cleanup difficult overnight and some private plow drivers had pushed snow into sidewalks.
“We have a lot of students who walk to school,” Kunin said Tuesday. “Public works couldn’t guarantee they’d have all sidewalks cleared by this morning. We couldn’t risk having a situation where students would be walking in the road.”
In both Portland and South Portland, the snow days have pushed the scheduled last day of school for students from June 14 to June 21. Additional snow days would extend the school year further into summer.
That scenario became more likely when the National Weather Service issued a winter storm watch Tuesday evening, predicting that Portland could receive 8 to 12 inches of snow from a storm that will begin Wednesday morning and hit its peak in the afternoon and evening.
In Portland, Assistant Superintendent Jeanne Crocker makes snow-day decisions that affect 6,850 students, and many of them also walk to school. When the city’s public works department notified her that it wouldn’t be able to clear all sidewalks and school yards by Tuesday morning, she had no choice but to call a snow day. And another storm coming Wednesday could mean another snow day.
“Last year was so easy – we only had three snow days,” Crocker said. “It will be what it will be. The safety of our students is paramount.”
As a parent of Portland students, Abby Fuller appreciates the care Crocker takes in calling snow days. She teaches sociology at the University of Southern Maine, which also cancels classes for winter storms. She baked bread with her three children Monday, and she took them skating at Thompson’s Point in Portland on Tuesday afternoon.
“It seems to me they usually get it right when they have snow days,” Fuller said. “The main challenge is keeping the kids active and busy and off the electronics.”
SAFETY OF STUDENTS, STAFF MEMBERS
Superintendents say they understand that snow days can be disruptive to family schedules, especially for working parents. Kunin said his priority is the safety of students and staff members, who drive to work from communities throughout Greater Portland.
“We certainly hear from parents no matter which way we go,” he said.
Kunin said he typically confers with about a dozen superintendents in the region before calling a snow day. Lately, they communicate via group texting, which allows them to easily share information about impending storms and weather and road conditions. “It starts about 4:15 in the morning,” he said.
Scarborough Superintendent Julie Kukenberger participates in two separate texting groups. She also communicates with town public works and public safety officials, as well as school facilities and transportation managers.
“It’s really a complex, very collaborative process,” Kukenberger said. “It’s all about student safety. How are we getting 22 buses over 55 square miles for three different runs, morning and afternoon?”
Kukenberger said most of the 2,297 students in Scarborough take the bus to school, and she believes it’s better to call a snow day than it is to send students home half-way through the day.
Scarborough had a two-hour delayed start Tuesday. So far this winter, Scarborough has had four snow days and three delayed starts. Without additional snow days, the last day of school for Scarborough students will be June 19.
In Westbrook, school was held Tuesday as usual after the fourth snow day of the season was called Monday.
“It’s always about students’ safety,” Superintendent Peter Lancia said. “I’m in close communication with the public works and police departments to see what conditions are like for roads, sidewalks and bus stops.”
Lancia said he understands that it can be difficult for some parents to adjust busy family and work schedules to accommodate snow days. His three kids attend schools in Portland, which had snow days Monday and Tuesday. Without additional snow days, the last day of school in Westbrook will be June 20.
“Beyond that, we’ll have to go one step at a time,” Lancia said. “But if we have to stay home, we have to stay home. I’m hoping with the storm that’s coming Wednesday, we won’t have to call a full snow day. I’m also hoping that March is sunny and snow-free, although it is gorgeous out there.”
MORE SNOW DAYS, LONGER SCHOOL YEAR
Schools in York County also were back in session Tuesday, though Biddeford had a two-hour delay. Most districts in York County have now used up the five snow days listed on school calendars and, if there are more storm closures, will have to add extra school days in June.
Superintendents say they’re not thinking about how many snow days the district has used up when weighing decisions about whether or not to cancel.
“The bottom line is that we’re going to err on the side of caution,” said John Suttie, the superintendent for Old Orchard Beach. “If that means we have to go to school on a sunny day in June, so be it.”
On stormy mornings, the superintendents of Biddeford, Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach begin texting each other around 4:15 after consulting with road crews. The superintendents try to make a decision together about whether to close school because students in all four towns attend the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology and share transportation services. But there are days, like Tuesday, where there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer for the region.
Students in Saco, Dayton and Old Orchard Beach were back in classes at the normal time on Tuesday, but Biddeford had different challenges and called a two-hour delay. Many students walk to school in Biddeford and crews needed a few extra hours to clear sidewalks and bus stops to make them safe for kids, Superintendent Jeremy Ray said.
“It’s different when you’re an urban school and so many kids walk,” said Ray, who consulted with superintendents in Westbrook and Sanford with similar urban environments and students walking to school.
Ray, who also is superintendent for Dayton, also talks to the superintendent of the Massabesic school district based in Waterboro about conditions inland. Being 10 or 15 miles inland can lead to very different conditions that call for different decisions about canceling school, he said.
If schools in York County have to call for another snow day or two, students will have to make up that time in June. But if the snowy streak continues and forces many more cancellations, superintendents say they may have to start considering alternative ways to make up classroom time, such as rescheduling teacher development days to make them regular school days.
Ray remembers having makeup days on Saturdays while growing up in Washington County, but so far that’s not an option being considered in York County.
“We’re only at five snow days right now. I suspect when you get to six, seven or 10, people start to feel different about those options,” he said. “We have some storms coming this week and it’s only February.”
Ray said if the school year is extended too far into summer, he has to think about the safety of students and staff in classrooms that can reach 90 degrees without air conditioning. In Old Orchard Beach, students will likely have to go to school beyond the originally scheduled last day of June 23. But Suttie, the superintendent, said he has to take into consideration that the town is a popular – and busy – summer tourist destination.
“So many of our students have multiple summer jobs. We have to consider that,” he said. “If we get into a situation where we were going too deep into the tourist season, it would hurt our businesses because they wouldn’t have workers and we’d have to consider something different.”
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: