NYS Education Department waiver has limited benefit for local districts

As the threat of high persistent winds and powerful gusts turned from warnings to reality in much of New York state on Feb. 24 — a Sunday — Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that public schools in the state that had exceeded their available snow days would be granted waivers if they cancelled classes on Monday due to the storm.

“My administration has been in contact with the New York State Education Department and it has confirmed that the day will not be held against districts requiring waivers due to insufficient available school days,” Cuomo said in a statement. “There is no higher priority than the safety of our students, and I commend New Yorkers for their vigilance during this severe weather.”

Most, if not all, of the region’s public schools did call a snow day on that Monday, with wind blasts knocking out power in scores of towns and villages. According to Binghamton-based National Weather Service spotters, a wind gust in Cohocton reached 61 mph at 5:40 a.m., Feb. 25.

That late February storm was the latest in a season of severe weather events that had forced numerous public school closings this winter, delighting students but worrying administrators. According to state regulations, school districts are required to provide 180 days of instruction to receive their full allotment of Foundation Aid, the basic state assistance that districts use for the day to day operations of their schools.

As Jeremy Palotti, Hornell City Schools superintendent, pointed out, Cuomo’s waiver announcement didn’t necessarily change the framework of the regulations. Prior to obtaining a state  Education Department waiver, schools that use up snow days must cancel previously planned vacation days to make up for the lost instructional time. In the meantime, waivers are not granted during the school year. They are considered after the academic year has ended and districts file their calendar, the Education Department said.

“In order for this waiver to apply we would have had to use all snow days and have also used up all other vacation days,” Palotti said. “For example, we still have all of spring recess still planned as a recess. We would have had to exhaust that first prior to the waiver taking effect.

“This really isn't any different than the current practice and policy, and it certainly sounded better and more favorable than it really was.”

Hornell has used four snow days during the current 2018-19 academic year, officials said.

“(We) have certainly used more days this year than expected, but we are okay for now,” Palotti said.

In Arkport, weather events have resulted in three snow days so far this year. Superintendent Jesse Harper said requesting a waiver is a non-issue at this point.

“Arkport is not in the position of being able to request a waiver,” he said. “Prior to any district requesting a waiver, all available vacation time must be used. If Arkport has one more school closing, May 24 (currently a day off for students) would become a day of instruction. If we continue to have school closings, spring break would be impacted. Only after all vacation time has been exhausted, would we be able to apply for a waiver.”

As for the snow days, Harper said there have been more than expected but “Safety is always the first priority. I will always err on the side of caution when it comes to school closings. Instructional time can always be made up.”

Alfred-Almond, which averages two to three snow days each year, has had three so far in 2018-19 along with a two-hour delay on a separate occasion, according Superintendent Rich Calkins.

“We appreciate the governor taking immediate action on this issue,” Calkins said. “While we are confident that we are going to be able to meet our mandated attendance requirements, we always have to remember that we still have a lot of winter left.”

Calkins described the factors that are considered when the district is weighing the need to call a snow day.

“We do this by carefully monitoring forecasts and by working closely with our town officials,” he said. “While some calls are ‘no brainers,’ the reality is that a snow day call is a dependent on the condition of the roads themselves.

“Our town highway superintendents and their crews are fantastic and work diligently to ensure that the roads are safe. I know that if they say that the roads should not be traveled on that we are going to have to call school off.”

Calkins pointed out there are advantages to keeping the school open to students, even aside from the obvious one of not losing instruction days.

He said, “Another factor that has to be considered is the benefits students receive by being in school; remember, for many (students) a snow day is not a day of freedom but rather a day that they are not fed or do not have a supportive and warm place to be.”