By Brandon Martin
During the most recent legislative session, two bills to allow school divisions more flexibility during days with inclement weather made it through the General Assembly with bi-partisan support.
Under the identical bills, House Bill 1790 and Senate Bill 1132, school divisions may declare an unscheduled remote learning day when severe weather conditions or other emergency situations have resulted in the closing of any school in the school division for in-person instruction.
By allowing for the unscheduled remote learning days, school divisions will not receive a reduction in the amount paid by the state from the Basic School Aid Fund. Under the language of the bills, school divisions can’t claim more than 10 unscheduled remote learning days in a school year, unless the Superintendent of Public Instruction grants an extension.
Both Henry County Public Schools (HCPS) and Martinsville City Public Schools (MCPS) plan for 180-day school years. According to Virginia law, school divisions must offer at least 180 days or 990 hours of instruction each year or state aid will be reduced. School districts typically build in extra snow days for inclement weather. If those days are used up, schools must make up days to meet the required instruction time.
“The division does not currently build in days but does have some built in time” through an extended school day “that can be used if needed when inclement weather becomes a factor,” said Monica Hatchett, director of communications for county schools.
Angilee Downing, assistant superintendent of instruction in Martinsville, said the city takes a similar approach by opting to “exceed the required 990 hours of instruction” rather than add days to the school calendar.
Even with the new flexibility of unscheduled remote learning days, Downing said “we will still need to build in the time in case we have more than 10 days or there are days that we are not able to provide services” due to events like power outages.
“Also, with the impact of (COVID-19) on schools, we want to be able to work with our young people as much as possible to ensure they have the skills and knowledge needed to be successful going forward,” Downing said.
Hatchett said due to the legislation, “the option to proceed virtually will continue to allow us to offer virtual instruction and maintain scheduled breaks rather than having to use those days as make up days. This will also allow us to proceed with professional development days for staff, rather than possibly having to use those days as make up days for inclement weather as well,” which will help keep the calendar intact.
Given the year-long impact of the pandemic, school divisions learned how virtual learning can preserve the schedule.
“This year, we experienced very few inclement weather days. Because we were in virtual learning mode at the time, the team’s decision to close, delay, or continue with virtual instruction was based on availability of power and internet for students and staff at their homes across the county,” Hatchett said. “Based on this criteria, HCPS only closed one day for inclement weather this year and was able to proceed with virtual learning on all other days that would normally be a delayed or closed day due to travel. This process is allowing us to maintain our spring break week and avoid using any of those days as make up days this year.”
In the past and without the ability to provide virtual instruction, school divisions would be held to the whims of the weather.
“There have been years with as many as 16 inclement weather days and years with as few as two inclement weather days,” Hatchett said. “HCPS always attempts to make up as many missed days as possible.”
The impact has been the same for the city schools.
“In the past, we have been able to make up most of the missed time through our extended daily schedule; however, we have had to make up a couple of days here and there,” Downing said.
While disparities in internet connectivity still will persist, the divisions plan to apply lessons from the pandemic to ensure less fortunate students don’t fall behind.
“We have been working in partnership with the City of Martinsville to get internet access to all our families. Our practice throughout the pandemic has been to work with our families to meet the needs of our students,” Downing said. “If a student does not have internet, the completed and submitted assignments count toward their attendance. We would do the same if the remote learning is due to unexpected inclement weather. Since we know families have different schedules and childcare situations, we also have a grace period for assignments to be submitted without penalty and for attendance.”
Hatchett said the same flexibility will apply to students in the county who don’t have access to broadband.
“Teachers are offering deadline flexibility to students who do not have internet access at home every day, but especially on days where inclement weather may have an impact,” she said.