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As Snow Days Pile Up, School Districts Fret About Schedules

Upper Valley youngsters might be jumping for joy with each additional snow day this winter — including back-to-back days off for many this week — but school administrators are wringing their hands as frequent storms have wreaked havoc with school calendars.

Indeed, some districts are scheduled to end the academic year on a Friday, and one more snow day could extend the school year into an additional workweek, while others have already passed a scheduling tipping point.

“Right now we’re OK as long as we don’t get another day,” said Patrick Andrew, superintendent of Mascoma Valley Regional School District, where classes will wrap up Thursday, June 19, but teachers need to be on hand until Friday, June 20.

“Nobody wants to push over (into the next week),” he said.

Wednesday and Thursday were the district’s fourth and fifth snow days, Andrew said. Two more canceled days would bring Mascoma students back on Monday, June 23, which has the potential to interfere with summer camps and vacation travel.

“That would be really difficult,” Andrew said.

At SAU 70 in Hanover, administrators are already grappling with that scenario. Superintendent Frank Bass said five snow days this year, including the past two days, have pushed the last day of public school in Hanover and Norwich to Tuesday, June 24.

“It’s bad,” he said of this year’s snow day count. “Usually we have two or three. ... It’s a burden in a lot of ways, because it throws off the continuity and the consistency of what we’re trying to do.”

Bass said he likely would appeal to the district’s school boards for support in petitioning the New Hampshire education commissioner to allow the Dresden district to count school hours instead of school days.

The district will probably have “more than enough hours,” he said, “so I might petition the state to waive the last two days.”

He said he expected he would hear back from the commissioner around mid-April.

Meanwhile, Thetford Academy is teetering on the edge, with school slated to run through Friday, June 13. While many districts compensate for snow days by tacking on additional school days at the end of the calendar, Head of School Bill Bugg said administrators there schedule 180 days of school each year — five more than the minimum required by state law — with the expectation of losing several days to snow.

The school had an early dismissal Wednesday, which does not count as a lost day. Thursday, however, brought a fifth weather-related closing, raising the question: What happens if there’s another big storm?

“When we would schedule a make-up date is under consideration — we don’t know yet,” Bugg said in an email. “Hopefully we won’t have to do it!”

Hartford Superintendent Tom DeBalsi, whose district already has extended the academic year to Monday, June 16, said the four snow days so far this year are more than usual. And the bitter cold has driven up heating costs, he said.

DeBalsi said Hartford High supplements a primary wood-chip boiler with an oil furnace.

“Once we run that, it’s really expensive,” DeBalsi said. “The cold has more of an effect than the snow, although the plowing and the amount of time that the maintenance department spends cleaning up the pathways and walkways and keeping them ice-free, it all has a cost.”

Mascoma’s Andrew said the district usually has three to five snow days annually, but this year is unusual in that there were two sets of back-to-back days.

“I can’t think of many times (in other years) when we’ve been closed for two days,” he said, noting storms this week and in mid-February were difficult because they started around noon on one day and ended around noon the next day.

This week’s storm dumped one to two feet of snow on the Upper Valley, said meteorologist John Goff with the National Weather Service. Storm totals included 15 inches in Wilder, 18 inches in Orford and 26 inches in Sharon.

Andrew and DeBalsi described a stress-filled process to determine whether to call a snow day. Superintendents are focused on safety, they said.

“People think you do it on a whim, but it’s not,” DeBalsi said. “It’s very stressful, because you’re listening to forecasts all over, and superintendents are communicating with each other throughout the whole storm and figuring out who’s doing what ... and you’re talking to the police department, because they’re on the roads the whole time. ...

“The last thing you ever want is for someone to get hurt because they’re out on a snowy road (to get to school).”

In Mascoma, decision-making includes early-morning conversations with the road agents from all five towns in the district, which covers 200 square miles and can have varying weather conditions from one area to another.

“We’re always appealing for some sympathy,” Andrew said of the process. “At 4 in the morning, it may not be clear.

“We don’t have a crystal ball. ... Sometimes people are disappointed in the decisions we make, but we’re trying to keep kids safe.”

Bass said SAU 70 and its school boards are engaged in a “continued conversation” about how to address the issue of extended school years by examining the start date and the placement of vacation weeks.

As for students, he said, he’s heard “mixed reviews” about the number of snow days they’re experiencing this year.

“In some cases it’s like, ‘great, it’s a snow day,’ ” he said. “And then obviously if they realize that they have to make it up, they’re not too keen on that.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.