Winter’s wrath: Kettering copes while state considers extra calamity days

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Photo: Sam Barton

Junior Quinne Hinderliter braves the morning cold as she walks across Fairmont High School’s frozen parking lot.

By Jake Shook, Flyer Staff

For many students, nothing is more nerve-racking than watching the closings scroll across the bottom of the TV screen on a school night when their homework isn’t done yet. And students always say a quick prayer to the Winter Gods and Superintendent Jim Schoenlein that Kettering comes up after the “J’s.”

The winter of 2013-14 has been especially harsh, forcing Schoenlein to make some difficult decisions. As of Feb. 7, Kettering has closed seven days this winter, on par with schools such as Centerville but far fewer than some other area school districts. On social media, Schoenlein is heralded as a superhero or an evil tyrant depending on his latest calamity day decision. But what goes into that decision?

“Our top priority is obviously the safety of kids,” said Schoenlein. “I look at the current temperature and windchill and the forecast for those things later in the day. I go out every morning at 4:30 and check on what the roads are like, and we consider the conditions at the bus stops, where the kids have to stand.” In addition, the superintendent said variables include the challenges faced by school buses and their drivers, and whether all of the district’s buildings are prepared in terms of heating, plumbing and snow removal.

“We add up all these variables, and then we make a decision,” Schoenlein said.

Mother Nature has thrown some particularly cold temperatures at the Miami Valley this winter, but Schoenlein doesn’t see any absolutes when it comes to temperature. In a recent “Message from the Superintendent,” Schoenlein explained that the American Academy of Pediatrics says that there are no national or professional standards for temperature that should deter sending children outside.

“Students in Minnesota might be expected to dress appropriately for cold weather of -15 degrees, while students in Florida might be kept inside when the temperature approaches 40 degrees,” Schoenlein wrote in his message.

Rumors and conspiracy theories

As with any controversial subject, rumors and even conspiracy theories are bound to arise. Some students and teachers joke that the superintendents at Kettering and Centerville try to see who will blink first in the face of bad weather. “I’d never be outblinked by Centerville,” Schoenlein said, laughing. “But in reality, Kettering, Centerville, Miamisburg and West Carrollton do talk to each other. There are about 25,000 students in those four south suburban districts, and we do try to stay on the same page.”

Another concern heard in hallway chatter at Fairmont is that the district will decide to make up excess calamity days by scheduling classes during the Feb. 17 Presidents’ Day holiday or even spring break. Fairmont Principal Dan VonHandorf said he doesn’t see that happening. “The district policy on snow days is to schedule make-up days at the end of the school year,” he said. “This would mean our exam week would be pushed back into the week of May 27.”

The assumption that we make a decision based on our number of snow days left is total bologna. That would have us putting convenience ahead of student safety. The safety of our kids is always our absolute top priority.”

— Superintendent Jim Schoenlein

Then there’s the rumor that Kettering City Schools is always hesitant to cancel once it reaches the state limit (currently five) for days that don’t have to be made up later. Schoenlein is quick to dispel those thoughts. “The assumption that we make a decision based on our number of snow days left is total bologna,” he said. “That would have us putting convenience ahead of student safety. The safety of our kids is always our absolute top priority.”

Similarly, VonHandorf puts the plight of the students above snow-day politics. “I have a first-grader and kindergartener who go to Southdale, and they are right out there with you guys when it’s cold or snowing,” he said. “As a principal and parent, it’s tough anytime we have bad weather.”

Still, VonHandorf thinks some Fairmont students are worsening the situation for themselves by not sufficiently preparing for the weather. “When it’s cold like this, we have to dress accordingly. And I don’t think our students do a good job of that as whole,” he said.

Legislative changes?

On a state level, this harsh winter is causing a push for a one-time extension of the allowed number of calamity days from five to nine. Ohio Gov. John Kasich favors an extension, and the Ohio General Assembly is expected to take action on the matter soon. State Sen. Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering, told the Dayton Daily News: “I anticipate we will do this rather quickly.”

Schoenlein said he also expects the measure to pass. “I believe the legislature will grant more calamity days as it is a political winner for them,” the Kettering superintendent said. “Everybody will love them.”

But Schoenlein says he won’t be concerned if the legislators fail to agree on an extension. “We are not counting on the extension as we have a plan in place to make up any days over five that we are out of school,” he said.

Meanwhile, changes are coming for the 2014-15 school year that could eliminate the whole concept of calamity “days” for some districts. According to the Ohio Department of Education, districts will be able to change to an hour-based schedule rather than a schedule based on being open a minimum number of days. The districts that opt for this change would get credit for excess hours to use during bad winter months instead of calamity days.

Under the hours-based system, the state will require that students be in school for a minimum of:

  • 455 hours for students in half-day kindergarten;
  • 910 hours for students in full-day kindergarten through grade 6; and
  • 1,001 hours for students in grades 7-12.

In 2013-14, the Kettering City Schools schedule calls for 177 days of instruction. The Flyer calculated that students at the high school attend class for 7.25 hours per day, but get 8 one-hour early dismissals. The math shows that Fairmont High School students already attend just over 1,275 hours per year.

This would give Fairmont 274 hours beyond the minimum to use in the event of any “calamities.” That contrasts sharply with the 36.25 hours offered (via five calamity days) now.

But Schoenlein says he’s not sure this is such a great idea. “I believe this is a strategy that has not been fully thought through by the governor or the legislators,” said Schoenlein. “When they do think it through thoroughly, they will change their minds. We should be looking to increase learning time, the time students spend with teachers, not looking for a tricky way to decrease learning time.”

At the end of the day, administrators say that student safety is the top priority.

“I’m a big believer in time on task,” said VonHandorf. “Missing days certainly impacts that, and we want to minimize that as much as possible. But at the same time, student safety is first.”