CHARLESTON — It’s going to be stick-your-nose-to-the-grindstone from now until summer for students across West Virginia as districts cram more instruction into the remaining school year to make up for near-record numbers of snow days in some counties.
In an attempt to meet the 180 days of instruction required by law, many schools are canceling field trips, eliminating theater productions and other in-school activities, turning professional development days into instructional days and delaying the last day of school.
“We’re trying to find every minute we can during the course of the school day to add instruction and it will still leave us short,” said Pocahontas County Superintendent Patrick Law. “We’ve never missed this many days before, but then this is a winter of historical proportions.”
Pocahontas is among West Virginia’s more mountainous counties that are dealing with record amounts of snow this winter, according to the National Weather Service in Charleston. Seasonal totals from Beckley in the south on up north toward the Eastern Panhandle range from a low of 103 inches in Elkins to more than 261 inches in Terra Alta, where the seasonal average is 160 inches.
In Pocahontas County, where more than 159 inches of snow has fallen, students have missed 23 days of class so far this year.
Students in Greenbrier, McDowell, Mercer, Monroe, Preston, Summers and Tucker counties also missed 20 days or more of school, according to unofficial data collected by the state Department of Education. Forty districts have missed between 10 and 19 days, while eight, including Cabell and Kanawha counties, have missed less than 10.
According to the department, there has only been two days since Jan. 1 when all schools in the state’s 55 counties opened without delays.
Earlier this month, Gov. Joe Manchin signed legislation that gives counties more flexibility in arranging their calendars. The new law, which takes effect July 1, requires schools to plan for snow days and other emergencies and frees them from the current law that limits schools to starting no sooner than Aug. 26 and ending by June 8.
But the change won’t help schools this school year. Because teacher contracts prohibit counties from using spring break for makeup days, districts are forced to look at a variety of ways to create more time.
Summers County, where students have missed 24 days, is considering extending the school day by an hour next month, said Superintendent Vicki Hinerman. Even with the scheduling change, she predicts students will be in the classroom for 175 days this school year, as compared to the five-year average of 177 days.
Delaying the last day of class by four days is a given in Pocahontas County, Law said. Extending the school day is not an option because some students who live in more rural areas already don’t get home much before 6 p.m.
Monroe County Superintendent Lyn Guy said this winter has proved to be one of the district’s most challenging. It has 22 days to make up.
“While folks tell me it was this bad during the mid-1970’s, or that the early 1980’s were worse, it has been the most difficult I’ve dealt with in my school career,” she said in a Feb. 18 memo to parents titled “The Winter That Never Melts.”
Monroe is delaying the last day of class until June 8 and turning two upcoming teacher training days into early release days for students.
Mercer County is looking to make up 23 days, matching the number of days missed during the legendary winter of 1977, said superintendent Deborah Akers.
“We just can’t seem to get out of it,” she said of the snow.
While Mercer is converting six professional days into instruction days, the last day of class is already set as late as it can be, she said.
“That’s all we have,” she said.
With students being challenged to learn more each day, educators say they are sharing tips on how to help students remain focused by changing activities and varying instruction so learning is fun, yet remains on task.
For younger students, Hinerman said teachers are being encouraged to move story time and music lessons to the end of the day when children may have more trouble focusing on tasks.
Though the pace may prove challenging to educators as well, she said, “I think they’re hitting the ground running.”