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Schools face quandary on lost days

South Boston News / February 19, 2014
Slammed by snow and frigid cold, and beset by broken heating systems and faulty plumbing, the Mecklenburg County school division must extend the school calendar beyond the planned May 9 closing date or risk losing state education dollars.

On two separate days in the past month, Bluestone High School was forced to close — once due to a broken boiler used to heat the school’s gym and main building, and before that, because of a lack of water. Park View High School should have closed on Jan. 21 when it experienced problems with its heating system, according to Superintendent of Schools James Thornton, but it did not.

In a letter to parents dated Feb. 11, Thornton said the problems with Bluestone’s infrastructure are indicative of the county’s need for stepped-up school facilities funding. “This is the second time Bluestone High School has had to close due to a facility issue,” stated the letter. “The age of the county schools combined with how growingly frequent these closures are occurring create increasing concern for the amount of lost instructional time.”

Facility issues were not the only problems that wreaked havoc on the calendar. The polar vortex that swept through the area in January prompted delayed starts to the school day, and two snowstorms over the past two week forced the cancellation of classes for seven of the last 12 school days. The cancellations leave the school division with no choice but to set aside replacement days for students.

“Right now our [high school and middle school] students have to make up about seven days,” explained Thornton. While elementary students do not need to make up their snow days, Thornton said the current plan is to extend the year for all students. In doing so, “We can push back the time frame for the SOLs,” he said.

Virginia law calls for students to attend school for 180 instructional days or 990 teaching hours each year, in order to be eligible for state education aid. Last year, trustees of the Mecklenburg County School Board approved a change to the calendar which has middle and high school students in school for 996 teaching hours, and elementary students for 1051 teaching hours. Both attend school for 166 instructional days.

With no snow days to fall back on, the administration must make adjustments to the calendar, either by adding five extra days plus one day for each two days missed after the first five, or by extending the length of the school day.

The school day currently ends at 3:35 p.m. for all grades. If the day is extended, it could cut into sports or other student extracurricular activities. Another option would be to eliminate holidays and spring break. For now, that option is not under consideration, said Thornton.

Noting there is no ideal solution, the superintendent said schools would send a memo home to parents explaining upcoming changes to the school calendar. He said a decision on how to extend the school year would be made within a week.

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