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Schools cope with lost days

When he was superintendent in the rural Sleepy Eye School District, there was one winter Jay Haugen canceled classes for all or part of 24 days. But since the Farmington superintendent made the move to the Twin Cities area he’s never seen anything quite like this winter.

“It is extraordinary,” said Haugen, who called one snow day all of last winter in Farmington and just two in five years as superintendent in Mendota Heights. “Usually we might have something every other year where we have one day.”

Through Tuesday, the Farmington and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan districts had canceled classes due to frigid temperatures five times in January alone. That includes once last week and twice this week.

The extra days off have likely delighted a lot of students, frustrated some parents who have to figure out day care or take time off of work and left school district administrators trying to figure out how to make up for lost time.

Haugen said school districts usually plan their schedules with flexibility to make up for one snow day. Beyond that, though, things get tricky.

“Typically, we would just add days on in June. But the learning gets to be really hard when it gets to be the middle of June, so we don’t want to do that,” Haugen said.

The district will turn to technology for at least one of those make-up days. Haugen said Monday the district will use what he called a flexible learning day where students can use their district-issued iPads to complete assignments at home.

Haugen plans to trying one of the flexible learning days in February. He will ask teachers to come up with a day’s worth of material that students can complete at home starting President’s Day weekend.

“We have so much learning now that goes on 24-7,” Haugen said at a Monday school board meeting that was itself cut short by the cold. “It’s part of our strategic plan for our students to be more self-directed.”

The district will decide after that first day whether the flexible learning days are a viable option.

“Until we really see how the first day goes, I don’t think we’ll make a final judgment,” Haugen said. “Sometime in February we’ll decide … how the rest of our calendar will work out.”

The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District is taking a more traditional approach to making up lost time. The district announced Tuesday that it would convert Feb. 13 to an additional school day for elementary and middle school students. Those students originally had that day off for parent-teacher conferences. High school students will have their first make up day Feb. 14. Elementary and middle school students will still have that day off as they did in the district’s original calendar.

The second additional school day will come March 14. That day was originally scheduled as a staff development day.

Having these additional days earlier in the calendar will provide for a better teaching and learning environment than adding them to the end of the school year,” Berenz said.

School districts want to make sure students have time to learn everything they need to learn.

“There’s concern about the number of days they’ve missed and the amount of material they have to cover,” Taschner said.

Both Haugen and Taschner said superintendents do not factor in previous missed days when they decide whether to cancel classes. Haugen said more accurate calculations of windchill have helped superintendents make their decisions to cancel school due to the cold.

There is a lot of communication among districts this winter about whether to keep students home.

“Superintendents have been talking amongst each other pretty regularly throughout this stretch about what they think is appropriate,” Taschner said. “It’s a concern about kids that have to walk to school and kids that have to wait at bus stops for any length of time.”

The questions might not get any easier as the winter goes on. Minnesota still has more than a month of winter left, and March is typically the state’s snowiest month. The snow days might not be at an end yet.

“It’s kind of frustrating,” Haugen said. “It’s not something we want to do. We want buildings open and warm and we want kids here learning. It’s hard, but we know the realities of it.”

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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