A majority of Long Island's weather-beaten school districts look likely to cancel traditional midwinter breaks -- providing crucial makeup classtime for hundreds of thousands of students.
Most school systems surveyed by Newsday plan to cancel three to five days of the weeklong February vacation, which is tied to Presidents Day and this year runs from Feb. 18 to 22. The aim is to make up the unprecedented amount of classtime lost to superstorm Sandy and a subsequent nor'easter that shut down schools for periods averaging one to two weeks.
Sixty-six of the Island's 124 districts -- 33 in Nassau and 33 in Suffolk -- said they have canceled or are considering canceling all or part of the midwinter break. Another 25 say their plans were uncertain. The rest either said they were not considering a change to the break or did not respond.
Some school officials continue to maintain that canceled vacations might be restored at the last minute, if the state grants waivers from the required 180-day school year.
Canceled midwinter break days are drawing many complaints from students, parents and school employees, who say it may cost them thousands of dollars in deposits on travel reservations.
Increasingly, however, local educators have concluded that Albany is prodding them toward canceling some vacation time, and that midwinter break is the most likely target.
"It appears that most districts are moving toward canceling February vacations," said Henry Grishman, superintendent of Jericho schools and a past president of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Tied to law, critical funding
Under state law, schools generally must be in session at least 180 days a year. Testing days can be counted toward the total, as can superintendents' conference days with teachers and other staff. Makeup days cannot be scheduled during July or August, or on most legal holidays.
Aside from those restrictions, local school boards enjoy wide latitude in setting district calendars. Any districts that provide fewer days than the minimum risk loss of state financial aid.
Most Island districts, if they are to retain that aid, must make up for the extensive time lost. Exceptions include a handful of systems in the eastern part of the Island that suffered less storm damage than the western sector. Other exceptions are districts such as Jericho, which started the year with a calendar well beyond the minimum requirement.
Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. is authorized to grant districts waivers of up to five days to cover "extraordinary" circumstances, including storm damage. State lawmakers, in cooperation with the governor, can authorize additional waiver days.
King has not signaled any specific plans, but his aides have said repeatedly that districts must exhaust vacation days before being granted any exemptions.
A bill authorizing an extra five days of waivers has been introduced in the Democratic-controlled state Assembly, and similar legislation has been promised in the Republican-dominated Senate. Neither chamber is scheduled to reconvene until after Jan. 1, raising doubts that waivers would come anytime soon.
Bari Fehrs, PTA council president in Huntington and the mother of three students, spoke for many parents in endorsing her district's decision to cancel the entire midwinter break. "You can't miss nine days of school and not think it has to be made up," she said.
Not surprisingly, the likelihood of extensive class makeups elicits less enthusiasm from students than from parents.
A student takes action
Corey Cook, an 11th-grader at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington Station, felt so strongly about the issue that he recently emailed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, requesting an official "pardon" that would write off lost class time. The South Huntington district, where he attends classes, has canceled four days of midwinter recess.
In his message to the governor, Cook, 16, acknowledged the issue is complex. He went on to contend, however, that preserving midwinter break would show respect for America's presidents, while also preventing large-scale absences among students and teachers intent on fulfilling plans for holiday travel.
"Teachers will be able to adapt for lost time and it will be much more productive than having a week full of half-sized classes, substitute teachers and movies," he wrote.
The teenager's father, Scott Cook, who owns a sheet-metal contracting firm, backs his son's position.
PTA leaders in the South Huntington district support the school board's decision.
Cuomo's office, which exercises little authority over school calendars, sent Cook a form response thanking him for sharing his ideas.
Many students have mixed emotions.
Emma Agostini, a senior at Centereach High School, welcomed the chance to catch up on sleep during the six days her classes were not in session after superstorm Sandy. However, Agostini said in a phone interview that she is taking four college-level Advanced Placement courses, and believes that extra classtime over midwinter break would help prep for AP exams in the spring.
"Every day is crucial," the 17-year-old said. The Middle Country district where she is enrolled has canceled three days of midwinter recess.
With Michael R. Ebert
SO MUCH FOR MIDWINTER BREAK. . .
Here's a list of school districts that have canceled all or part of midwinter break
Oyster Bay-East Norwich
Cold Spring Harbor
Here's a list of school districts that are considering canceling all or part of midwinter break
Valley Stream Central High School
Half Hollow Hills