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No agreement on plans to make up school days lost to Sandy

Published 7:58 am, Tuesday, November 13, 2012
  • Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon checks his phone during Monday's Board of Education discussion of the proposals to make up for five days Westport schools were forced to close because of Hurricane Sandy.  Westport CT 11/12/12 Photo: Andrew Brophy / Westport News contributed
    Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon checks his phone during Monday's Board of Education discussion of the proposals to make up for five days Westport schools were forced to close because of Hurricane Sandy. Westport CT 11/12/12 Photo: Andrew Brophy

 

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Hurricane Sandy continues to affect Westport residents, though in less daunting ways than property damage and power outages.

Classes were cancelled five days during the week of Oct. 29 because of the storm, but the 2012-13 academic calendar, adopted in December 2010, envisioned only three days would be lost due to inclement weather. The board now has to make up two days, but would have to make up five days if it also sets aside the traditional three days as potential snow days that still may be needed during the coming winter season.

During Monday night's Board of Education meeting, parents and Staples High School students said they favor keeping the week of April vacation, but neither of the two revised school calendars presented as options to the school board left the entire April 15 through 19 break untouched.

The first option, which Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon said he prefers, would schedule classes all five April days, while the second option has students in school only April 18 and 19. The second option, unlike the first, would have classes on Jan. 18 and Feb. 25 and extends the last day of school from June 20 to June 21.

Each of the two options leaves the winter vacation, from Feb. 18 through 22, untouched.

Students and parents who spoke at the meeting were generally opposed to having classes during the April vacation. Parents said they already booked vacations during that time, while students said they need the break from school and that many of them have committed to service trips during that time.

"It's a very long run from February to the summer," Staples' senior Ryan Greenberg said. He said the month of April is one of the most stressful times for Staples' seniors and that the break helps rejuvenate students and teachers.

"Going that long without having a break is a really long time," said parent Phyllis Wallitt. She said her family have planned a vacation during the April break that could not be changed and that her son, a first-grader at Greens Farms School, would miss an entire week of school under option 1. "In the second option, he won't be missing an entire week," she said.

Adrienne Williams, a parent, said she felt "a little like a whiner standing up here because so many people are suffering" in the aftermath of Sandy, but that she wanted to reiterate that four months is a long time for students to go without a break. "If you can split the pain between February and April, I don't know if you can do that," she said. "We too have plans. I ask you to consider option 2 if that's the only one on the table."

Angus Armstrong, a Staples' senior, said many students already signed up for service trips overseas during the April vacation and he predicted at least 100 Staples students wouldn't be in classes if the board schedules classes April 15 to 19. He said the state and federal governments had declared a state of emergency because of Sandy and questioned why it is so important to reclaim those days.

Other parents said colleges that accepted seniors typically schedule visits for incoming freshmen during the April vacation, while juniors often visit colleges during that time.

Kate Andrews, co-president of Staples' PTA, said, "I think what you're going to find is a lot of families will go on vacation. Teachers will wonder how much new material to introduce." She said some teachers may be unable to attend class during the April break and students who do attend class may find substitute teachers and a quarter of their classmates absent.

Landon said he avoided having school during the winter vacation because it was more likely to snow in February. He said the school district also had "better control over our energy expenditures" by closing schools in February and "can break the cycle of influenza and colds by having kids away from each other."

Landon said March is not a month conducive to closing schools because that is when the Connecticut Mastery Test and Connecticut Academic Performance Test are administered. "Districts that used to close in March have disengaged from that due to CMT and CAPT," he said. "It's pretty universal everybody keeps the entire month of March as a regular instruction month."

Landon said he didn't want to extend the academic year past June 21 (a Friday) because students seem less receptive to instruction the later in June that classes are held. He said that was why the district started the school year before Labor Day.

Landon said he preferred building three snow days into the school calendar "because you never know what's going to happen." He said last year's mild winter and the recent unusual weather, as well as some forecasters, indicate a harsh winter ahead.

Landon said he believes options 1 and 2 are the only viable ways to make up for the lost week, and that his concern with option 2 is the potential for low attendance on April 18 and 19 and the need to take teachers out of the classroom for professional development and hire substitutes to take their place.

The state requires 180 days of instruction for students, and Westport's 2012-13 school calendar calls for 182.

None of the school board members seemed inclined Monday to reduce the number of instructional days to 180 because of lost instructional time and contracts that require school district employees to be paid for 182 days of instruction.

The school board can't make up lost days by adding hours onto a school day or by holding school on Saturday or Sunday. The district also can't hold school past June 30 and can't convene school on federal holidays, such as New Year's Day, Martin Luther King Day and President's Day, said Elaine Whitney, the board's new chairwoman.

In introducing the topic of revising the school calendar, Whitney said school board members had heard "quite a bit of input on this topic" and that the board plans to adopt a revised school calendar at its next meeting on Dec. 3.

School board member Mark Mathias said parents and students who would like to see another option for a revised school calendar should e-mail board members before Dec. 3. He said they should suggest which days to hold classes, and not just say they want the April vacation to remain untouched.