Snow Wars: Schools struggle to meet required days of instruction

West of Kalamazoo, the Mattawan Consolidated School district shut down school for two days after a November windstorm knocked out power throughout the district and damaged the roof of the high school gym. Heavy snow, icy roads and dangerous wind chills have closed school seven more days since then.

That puts Mattawan three days over the limit of six missed days that districts are allowed by the state before they must add days to make up for lost teaching. “It's been frustrating,” said Superintendent Patrick Bird. “At this point, it looks we are going to be extending school to make that up.”

Thanks to a brutal, record-setting winter, it's a prospect facing districts across Michigan if they are to meet requirements that they deliver at least 170 days of instruction. Failing to provide enough school days can result in a district losing out on state aid payments. Some, like Mattawan, have already exceeded the six-day threshold for snow days or other emergencies.

Monroe Public Schools, southwest of Detroit, has closed 12 days. Many more are at the limit, leading to a debate among some districts, administrators and the state Department of Education over whether to add additional school days, or find other solutions.

Some argue that districts should have the option of adding minutes to remaining school days so districts aren't forced to extend the school year.

But many educators, as well as state education leaders, believe that would be a step in the wrong direction, as Michigan moves to mandate a longer school year next year.

“For me it's as simple as, if a student loses a day we owe it to that student to give them back a day,” said David Tebo, superintendent of Hamilton Community Schools, south of Holland. His district has been closed nine days, one for the funeral of a teacher killed in a December car crash and eight more for weather.

“I don't believe it's beneficial to add 15 minutes a day or 30 minutes a day. We took it back in a chunk. We should give it back in a whole chunk.”

Michigan Department of Education spokesman William Disessa said the department does not track the number of snow days taken by districts. But based on media reports and calls, he added, “I can safely say that a lot districts have exceeded or reached their six-day limit.”

Longer days or more days

Michigan currently requires school districts to meet two attendance standards to receive state aid: Schools must offer 170 days of instruction, and 1,098 hours of classes.

But a measure introduced earlier this month in the state House would give districts the option of adding a minimum of 30 minutes to each day to make up for lost days.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Phil Potvin, R-Cadillac, said it’s common sense to give cash-strapped districts options to meet state instructional standards. Each day added in June, Potvin noted, raises district expenses for transportation and other costs.

“You are talking about some money here. Anything we can do to keep more dollars in classrooms just makes more sense to me.”

Potvin won passage of a similar measure last May, but that was a one-time fix for the 2012-2013 school year. His new proposal makes that option permanent.

State Superintendent Mike Flanagan opposes it, as does the state Board of Education.

On Feb. 11, the board passed a resolution calling for lost days to be made up “with full days of student instruction, not by adding on minutes to the existing days remaining in the school year.”

In a statement, Flanagan said: “Adding minutes onto the end of a day won’t provide the full instruction that students missed on the snow days. When many nations are having their students spend 200 days or more in school, we can’t be moving in the opposite direction. Michigan students shouldn’t be shortchanged because of the weather.”

Potvin's reaction to Flanagan's statement: “He hasn't signed any checks lately for transportation.”

A history of shorting students

A 2009 report by the Center for Michigan found that districts across Michigan had dropped well below the 180-day school year that had been in place until 2003, when legislators dropped the day requirement and instead mandated 1,098 hours of instruction. The change was to help districts save on the cost of transporting students, food service, heat and electricity.

The report found that approximately 140 of 755 school districts and charter schools held school less than 170 days. More than a dozen held less than 160 days of classes.

Advocates for longer school years note that industrialized nations like Korea and Japan – which typically outperform U.S. K-12 students on standardized tests – schedule more than 200 days in a school year. They also argue that Michigan, more than most states, needs to give students more instruction. Last year, Michigan ranked 42nd in the 4th-grade math and 36th in 4th-grade reading.

In the wake of the report, legislators amended the school state aid law to raise the minimum number of days in the school year, first to 165 days, then to 170. It is to be raised to 175 days next school year. That would still leave Michigan behind most states: A 2011 study by the Education Commission of States found that more than 30 states scheduled a 180-day year.

Nonetheless, Cadillac Area Public Schools Superintendent Joann Spry said she believes local districts should be able to decide how they make up snow days. Her district has logged seven thus far, she said, adding, “We still have a lot of winter left.”

“I would side with allowing local districts to make the decision that is best for their schools and individual circumstances,” Spry said.

In making that decision, Spry said, districts should be able to weigh cost as well as academic considerations. District buses travel 2,000 miles a day transporting students at a daily cost of $6,700, she said, noting, “It is real money.”

Spry asserted that adding time to existing days can be just as effective as adding new days, “if planned and implemented to support student learning.”

At Hamilton Community Schools, Tebo is working with union representatives to make up the three days over its six-day limit. The district was to hold school Monday, which had been scheduled as a mid-winter break. It is also looking at scheduling a school day in March that is currently slated for teacher record-keeping.

But even if given the choice, Tebo said he has no interest in adding minutes onto the school day instead. “That puts more emphasis on saving money and not on doing what's right for kids,” he said. “That's the thing I struggle with.”

At Grandville High School near Grand Rapids, a pair of teachers have taken matters into their own hands when school is closed (the district has missed seven days thus far).

Advanced Placement calculus teacher Kelly Stouten and teaching partner Nancy Triezenberg send messages to students on snow days alerting them where they could find the day's assignment online. To enhance the lesson, they attach videos showing how to solve sample problems.

Stouten said they encourage students to email them from home with questions. Depending on the question, Stouten said, she will either make another video and send it to the student or email an image of a solved problem.

Stouten estimated 90 percent of her homebound students do the work.

“When they come back, it doesn't feel like we missed a day,” she said.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Dear Reader: We value your thoughts and criticism on the articles, but insist on civility. Criticizing comments or ideas is welcome, but Bridge won’t tolerate comments that are false or defamatory or that demean, personally attack, spread hate or harmful stereotypes. Violating these standards could result in a ban.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Mon, 02/17/2014 - 5:42pm
Would school on Saturdays be an option?
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:03am
I'm sure the MEA and every other unionized function would want time and a half.
Mike R
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:45am
An unnecessary and snide remark that doesn't advance the discussion and is not consistent with reality. Teachers are paid for a certain number of hours per day and week, but they typically put in close to double that number in unpaid preparation, grading, assessment, conferences, individual tutoring, and other essential educator duties. Please stop bashing teachers simply to advance your personal anti-union agenda.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 11:18am
Yes Rich, I'm sure other professions would just love coming in on Saturdays and not want something in return. You can blame yourselves and others for most companies not giving extra money and then blame the unions who got that rate. Stick to the subject and get off the teacher's back before you start complaining about why they can't hire any quality people in the profession. Can't Walmartize every profession in this country...
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 6:36pm
I am a school bus driver and have held a Saturday job for many years, I am not able to get out of my Saturday commitment along with many of my coworkers. I do not feel that districts would have drivers.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 9:28am
I don't understand the transportation argument. The buses did not run on days off, so that budget should be available for make-up days.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 6:52pm
I agree with colleen in regards to the buses not running on snow days, but as a driver I do get paid for snow days and if school days are to be made up by extending the school year I will be expected to drive with no additional pay. My district has only missed 2 days to date.
Darryle Buchanan
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:05am
Adding minutes to the day does nothing to further education. It's not about time, it's about content delivery. Thirty more minutes added to a school day when students are already on information overload, will do nothing but create more stress on students, families and teachers.
Darryle Buchanan
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:07am
It would be helpful in terms of scheduling if we didn't have to start school after Labor Day to satisfy the tourism lobby in Michigan.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 12:33pm
I agree, schools need to be in school on Presidents day and MLK day. These are days students can actually learn about these amazing men and that will add days. Some schools have school on MLK day already, but not president day. I don't think schools need Mid winter break either. Students have a long Christmas break, then maybe a snow day is tossed in there then we're knocking on Spring Break week. Living in Michigan are schools and Legislators should know better.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:07am
What makes one believe the 165, 170, 180 ,or 200 days of school is the magic amount of time needed to ful-fill the learning requirements of students? Or that a certain number of hours in a classroom will assure that a student is educated in all the necessary subject areas. In this technological - inter-connected - multimedia world, children learn in a variety of ways and not always in the classroom. Those faculty that took it upon themselves to connect with student online had the right idea. Children and adolescents are quite capable of learning on their own or in clusters of their peers and the results are astounding! It's time that we really enter the 21st Century and advance education to match what we have learned in neuroscience and the applications of technology to educating our children and adults.
Jackie Cook
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:10am
How about canceling the spring break? It usually runs more than 5 days as Good Friday or a record day are tagged on. Then parents want to get an early start so they take their children out a day early. It would upset a lot of people with vacation plans, but what's important? By April there surely won't be more snow storms?
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 12:24pm
We have had ice storms during spring break.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:38am
I have worked as a teacher for a few years and then as a parent and volunteer helper at schools for over 40 years. I have always heard teachers say they wish they had more time in each period of the day, not more days at the end. Did your study of other states include time spent in each class period and the number of classes per day? Adding days causes many problems for school districts, parents & teachers, alike.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:46am
I agree that districts should be able to decide how to make up the days. In our district we are off for mid-winter break. Granted we are not over yet on days but maybe taking days away from breaks would help solve this issue.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 11:25am
Now it takes 170 days, next year 175 and some states schedule 180. If your school calender doesn't plan for at least six replacement days for weather, and you live in Michigan, you are foolish. Do we need a trip to Sesame Street to figure this out? In an other real world situation, if you miss a day you make it up.
Jon Blakey
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 3:37pm
Tell that to the airlines. 75,000 lost flights and I bet tens of thousands never get made up. Given that one example, I agree the days need to be made up. Spring breaks can be shortened with union cooperation and days can be added. Then, you need to get the students to attend so you can actually count it as a day of instruction for state aide purposes. Finally, we should also expect the governor and legislature to address any financial hardships cause by these 'acts of god" days with some of the surplus funds we now have. I'm betting that does not happen because education is only important when it can get you a vote.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 12:20pm
No matter what they decide the students will not gain the learning they need or deserve. At the end of the day students are checked out, so if you add more minutes it will be only to make up the required hours students should be in school. If they add another day, again there will be no learning, students have already checked out. It's hard to teach students that have already checked out from Memorial Day.
Charles Richards
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 12:49pm
Colleen made an excellent point about nothing being spent for transportation on snow days. Bus driver contracts should specify that drivers aren't paid for snow days. And I doubt that very much would be spent on heating on make up days in the spring. Complete school days are much more valuable for education than adding minutes on. Adding minutes on the end of the day doesn't provide instruction in those classes that were missed. And the state could maintain a contingency fund to compensate districts for any extra costs that are incurred for make up days beyond the six already allowed for.
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 7:57pm
I am sorry that Charles feels that driver contracts should not allow snow days, I have finished my 20th year of driving, After getting up at 5:00 am getting ready to go to work them finding out that there is no school is it unreasonable that we get paid for four hours when other school employees are getting paid for 8 hours?
Tue, 02/18/2014 - 10:25pm
Nancy I am sorry you only get paid for 4 hours for getting up at 5am, but you are getting paid for not working! I think its unreasonable for this to happen unless you are paid a contractual amount for the the entire school year, regardless of the number of times you run that bus. I'm wondering if those snow days count towards earning your healthcare benefit after you retire?
Sat, 02/22/2014 - 1:02pm
Adding minutes to a day is just ludicrous. Its the cheap way out and doesn't give back what was taken. We already have a very short school year - why shorten it more? Also, the transportation issue is a mute point; the days off means money "saved" so the budget isn't put off by much. I've been on a school board for some time and its only the money that drives the decision to add minutes instead of days.
Mon, 02/24/2014 - 9:14am
While I think that education will be best served by making excess snow days up with full days of school, I think the reality of school district budgets and contracts with their teachers, bus drivers and support staff should leave the decision of how to re-schedule so as to meet the minimum required hours of instruction to each school district. For the future, and to guide schools in negotiating their future contracts, I'd like to see the legislature return to a minimum number of days and a minimum number of hours of instruction. In addition, we should write a legal definition of "instruction" that excludes the time spent on specially scheduled standardized tests (ie. the MEAP, PLAN or ACT) which are not part of the normal classroom or teacher assessment. I have heard of multiple districts that schedule special "test practice" periods as often as every 3 weeks throughout the school year, because they want to assure themselves that students are on-track for the standardized tests. The over-emphasis on the tests is much more likely to create test anxiety among the students than it is to make them more comfortable with the setting and able to demonstrate their knowledge. This excessive time spent on test practice would nearly always be better spent on actual instruction. My local school district wastes 10-12 school days each year for the high schoolers by releasing all but the 11th graders from school during ACT testing, and by scheduling 4 days / semester for two 2-hour long exam periods each day, plus a "study day" and a "grading day" when students are not in class. The teachers claim this is needed to "accustom the students to a college exam schedule", but the track record of my 3 kids (in college-prep and AP courses) is that this "half days plus extra days off" is primarily for the convenience of the teachers, not the benefit of the students.
Doug Niergarth
Fri, 02/28/2014 - 11:03am
Perhaps a better solution is to ADD a certain number of school days to account for those unforeseens, and then get out EARLY when they are not all used. The number of days need to be variable among all the districts in question, because history tells us that certain districts have certain down-time needs.