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Superintendent column: Time is of the essence

By Keith Jacobus, South Washington County Schools superintendent

This has certainly been a winter to remember. Prior to last month, winter seemed manageable and fairly normal. Then, the true character of this winter revealed itself once February started.

Due to record snowfall and extreme cold, at this point in the year, we have had to cancel school five times. I know for many students, an unexpected snow day is something to celebrate. For me, making the decision to close or stay open is an extremely stressful and difficult decision.

After the multiple closures, we now are under the minimum number of instructional hours we are required to schedule each year. Our Board of Education is now considering how to make up the lost time.

By Minnesota statute, schools are required to schedule a certain number of instructional hours each year and schedule those hours in a minimum of 165 days. The number of hours varies between grade levels. All-day kindergarten students must meet for 850 hours per year. For elementary grades, we need to schedule and meet 935 hours per year. For middle and high school students, the requirement is 1,020 hours per year. The variation in the number of days a district schedules to meet, along with how many minutes of instructional time are scheduled each day, creates the variation you may have noticed in calendars of different school districts.

Our school calendar has traditionally consisted of 174 instructional days. The length of our school day allows us to schedule an additional four days of instruction at the secondary level. We schedule the same number of hours for all levels so there are more days above the requirement at the elementary level than the secondary. After our fifth closure, we now are one day behind at the secondary level.

The unexpected severity of this winter has forced some school districts in the state to close nine or 10 times. Lawmakers at the state Capitol realize the challenge school districts will have in trying to make up the time necessary to stay within the state requirements. Currently, there are bills being discussed or introduced to allow school boards the flexibility to determine whether they would make up the time or not. One potential bill would exclude three days of school closures from the calculation based on the three days schools were closed for severe cold.

Another bill would allow school boards to decide whether they would make up any of the time. If either of these bills passed, my recommendation to our board would be to maintain the current calendar this year for consistency and forgo trying to add time this year, assuming we do not have many more additional snow days later in the season.

Although every board of education, and educator values the days students are in school, making up the days can become a challenge. We want the instructional time to be meaningful and not scheduled simply to meet the minimum requirements. Adding days at the end of the year after the state testing is complete and students are ready for summer break may not be meaningful. If a district has any scheduled days off within the calendar after the closures, they could schedule those days as student contact days depending on their teacher contract language. Adding minutes to the day is one way to meet the time requirement, but again it is not a strong instructional strategy.

I do believe the state will provide us the flexibility to make the best decision for our school district. Our Board of Education will then work to determine what is the best instructional approach for us as we navigate this unusual school year. I want to thank you for your support regarding the decisions made this year to close school. I know those days are extremely difficult on parents trying to scramble for day care and get to work on time. I know each day we cancel and change a family's schedule, many hardships arise, and I feel a great responsibility to you, as parents. I am hoping the large snow falls and extreme cold weather are behind us, at least for this season!