Last winter’s mild temperatures provided Fairfax County school officials with some shelter from the annual parental backlash that accompanies every school closing or delay.
The first few weeks of 2014 haven’t been quite as kind.
This month alone, Fairfax County has closed school six times and delayed openings on three other occasions. The culprit? A two-day blast of single-digit weather earlier this month and a moderate winter storm that brought between 6 and 8 inches of snow to our region last Tuesday.
For Fairfax residents with childhood ties to New England or the upper Midwest, the flurry of recent closures is usually met with wide-eyed amazement and a joke or two. After all, a foot of snow in Boston usually results in a two-hour delay the following morning. Six inches of snow and 15-degree temperatures aren’t enough to make the morning news in Chicago or Minneapolis, but they can close schools and shut down the federal government for two or three days in our region.
We don’t mean to make light of the situation. Students’ safety, of course, is paramount, and we appreciate the difficult task school officials face when deciding whether to open or close Fairfax County’s 200-plus schools. Navigating an icy sidewalk is often difficult for a seasoned traveler, let alone a sleepy third-grader with a 15-pound backpack. Same goes for snow-covered roads and the challenges they present for freshly minted teenage drivers.
There is no question Fairfax made the right call in closing schools last Tuesday. Most would say they erred on the right side of caution by keeping kids home on Wednesday as well.
That said, Fairfax County’s decision to close Thursday, when all roads had been cleared and most neighboring school systems had returned to class, was questionable at best.
It might have been easier to swallow if it had been the county’s first weather-related closing of the season, but it was the sixth. It was also followed by a note from school administrators that next month’s President’s Day holiday — a travel weekend for many families — would become a school day because of the fact that Fairfax had exceeded its annual allotment of snow days.
Going forward, Fairfax would be wise to expand its current school closing checklist to include the academic consequences of missing a full week of school on the heels of a two-week winter vacation. How about the economic burden three days of unexpected child care costs places on cash-strapped families? We suspect more than a few 7- and 8-year-olds stayed home alone last Thursday because mom or dad couldn’t afford to take another day off from work. We also suspect that closing school for three or four straight days because a handful of bus stops across the county hadn’t been plowed isn’t the best message to send impressionable young students.
If Fairfax officials are going to continue to “err on the side of caution” regarding school closings, they might want to borrow a page from their neighbors in Loudoun when it comes to instructional time.
The Commonwealth of Virginia requires that schools provide at least 990 hours of instructional time each school year with each school day being a minimum of 5.5 hours in length.
With a six-hour instructional day — instead of the 5.5-hour day Fairfax and most other school systems use — Loudoun County is able to set aside 15 make-up days in the school calendar. It means inclement weather will not result in shortened vacations, Saturday classes, lengthened school days, or changes in graduation dates. Families could also set their calendars a full year ahead around the fixed dates, rather than risk losing their deposit on a late June rental in the Outer Banks.
It won’t solve every snow-related controversy, but it’s a good starting point.