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Amid snowmageddon, Michigan schools are out of snow days: What to know

school bus
What happens in a blizzard when a school is out of its allowed snow days? A lot of schools are facing that question this year. (mikecphoto / Shutterstock.com)

Even before the first flakes fell in what was predicted to be the biggest snow storm so far this winter, many Michigan schools had used up all their “snow days.”

That didn’t stop many districts in lower Michigan from closing Wednesday, and is unlikely to make school leaders hesitate long before announcing closures Thursday if road conditions remain dangerous. But it could have financial implications for schools down the road, or threaten to extend school calendars later into June.

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Snow days, the dream of every kid and the bane of many parents, are causing more stress than usual this year. Every day out of classrooms adds to the pent-up frustrations of parents weary from two years of uncertain school schedules caused by the pandemic. And while the decision to close schools for snow or any other reason is made by individual districts, the political friction caused by the spate of school closures during the pandemic has been felt all the way to the governor’s office. 

A recent study showed Michigan students who were in classrooms last school year learned more than students who were forced into remote learning for all or most of the year. Numerous studies have shown the mental strain students endured during remote learning. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, facing reelection in November, has recently started saying that school buildings need to be open.

Bridge Michigan spoke to school leaders recently about the consequences of using up their allotment of school closure days, including for snow or other bad weather. Here’s what you need to know.

What does it mean to be “out” of snow days?

Michigan’s pupil accounting guidelines allow public school districts six school closures per year, known as “forgiven days.” The public knows them as snow days because they’re most often used for inclement weather, but the days can be used for other reasons, such as power outages.

It’s the beginning of February – how can schools be out already?

This school year, some districts have shut down for staff shortages, COVID outbreaks, and copycat threats that followed the deadly November shooting at Oxford High School. Those factors are forcing school closures that are rapidly draining districts’ pool of forgiven days.

Does that mean kids will have to attend school even during a blizzard when their school is out of snow days?

Not at all. Schools close for bad weather conditions when the district superintendent decides it’s unsafe for students and staff to travel. Schools routinely close for bad weather even if they’re technically “out” of snow days.

Is there a way to get more forgiven days?

Districts that deplete their six forgiven days can ask the Michigan Department of Education for up to three more, bringing the total to nine. That’s not unusual, and those requests are routinely accepted.

So far this school year, MDE has received six requests for an additional three forgiven days, and more applications are expected.

The department is likely to approve them, but can only allow three additional days (for a total of nine).

So what happens when a school closes for more than their allotted days?

That’s a problem some Michigan districts will likely face this year. For example, Newaygo Public Schools, north of Grand Rapids along the snowy Lake Michigan side of the state, had already been closed 9.5 days before this week’s snow storm. Others, including Detroit Public Schools Community District, had already used six days.

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The state requires schools to offer 180 days and 1,098 hours of instruction over a school year. If schools are closed more than their allowed number of forgiven days, they must make them up, even if that means extending the school year. That has financial implications for schools, which must negotiate with unions for a longer school year, as well as for families.

Wait, so my kids have a day off for snowball fights today, but may have to go to school longer in June?

That’s possible. It’s not uncommon for school districts to extend the school year by a few days to make up for days missed.

Another option is shortening or eliminating spring break.

I don’t like those options. Are there any others?

Some school districts, including Detroit’s, announced that instead of being closed for the expected blizzard, they were switching to remote learning. That means the district isn’t docked for a school closure day. That’s not as much fun for kids, but it helps lessen the chances of extending the school year.

Another option: asking the Legislature to allow more forgiven days this school year.  Administrators around the state have been asking the Legislature for more flexibility, but so far their efforts haven’t gained traction.

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