Some school breaks cut to recoup lost days
At least 11 Long Island public school districts socked by superstorm Sandy have canceled midwinter vacations or other breaks to compensate for lost class time, and dozens more cancellations could be imminent.
Widespread revocations of school vacations would have a major academic and economic impact across the Island, where more than 450,000 students lost five to 10 days of class on average from effects of Sandy and a subsequent nor'easter.
So far, the Cold Spring Harbor, Harborfields, Locust Valley, Middle Country and South Huntington districts have called off all or most of the weeklong February vacation known as midwinter break. Huntington's school board has scheduled a meeting Monday night to consider the same action. Hewlett-Woodmere and Rockville Centre boards will consider the issue Tuesday.
Many districts act
Overall, Newsday found that at least 40 districts out of 124 on the Island either already canceled some breaks or plan to take up the issue at school board meetings later this month or early next month. Newsday's estimate was based on a Friday survey of districts, coupled with interviews with regional school leaders.
Many school officials said canceled vacations could be restored if the state grants waivers from its required 180-day school calendar. Those officials added that they have not received any clear signal from Albany that such waivers will be granted, and that they need to quickly advise parents, students and teachers of any upcoming changes in school calendars.
Also in school administrators' minds is the potential for bad winter weather ahead that may require more closings.
Some districts in upstate river valleys, after flooding last year from Tropical Storm Irene, obtained waivers of up to 10 days. But half of that exempted time was not approved by state lawmakers until June -- more than nine months after Irene struck.
"It's a critical issue, because we're coming up on February," said Michael Mensch, chief operating officer for the regional Western Suffolk BOCES school agency. "People make plans for trips and vacations, and there's an economic issue if people don't hit the ski slopes."
Mensch added that about a dozen districts in his region are discussing possible cancellations of midwinter break, in addition to three districts that already have acted. Another dozen districts in eastern Suffolk are weighing similar action, according to Gary Bixhorn, chief operating officer of the BOCES covering that region.
Canceling school vacations is a sensitive issue, educators acknowledged. Typically, such decisions divide parents who are worried about losing deposits on vacation trips from other parents anxious to provide their children with enough classtime to pass upcoming exams or heighten their test scores.
"While many parents are upset with having to give up the break, a majority of the ones I spoke with were still willing to give the days up to get instructional time," said Laura Carey, president of South Huntington's PTA council. "Nine days out is a lot of time."
Carey, who has one daughter each in fourth grade and fifth grade, supports her school board's unanimous decision Wednesday to call off four days of midwinter break.
Like many parents, Carey said she believes that canceling these days will prove less controversial than, say, tinkering with another weeklong break in March that is tied to Easter and Passover. The board also canceled two other days off scheduled for April 1 and May 24.
Under law, state education commissioners can waive up to five days of school for "extraordinary circumstances" including storm damage. State lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo approved another five days for upstate schools hit by Irene, but that was a one-time arrangement.
The state's education commissioner, John B. King Jr., has not yet said whether he will grant waivers. King's aides have said repeatedly that, in any case, state law requires districts to exhaust vacation time before getting any exemptions.
State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate's Education Committee, announced earlier this month that he would file a bill allowing extra waivers beyond the five days already permitted by law.
Several school administrators said Friday that Flanagan recently told them any such bill could not be taken up until the legislature goes back into regular session after Jan. 1. The senator did not respond to Newsday's request for comment.
One upstate district that managed to obtain a 10-day waiver for 2011-12 is centered in the Catskills resort town of Windham. The district's lone, 422-student school was badly damaged when 8 feet of floodwaters poured over the banks of a nearby river, leaving the gym and playground covered with mud and debris.
With its waiver, the Windham-Ashland-Jewett district shortened its academic calendar to 170 days. It also preserved vacations. To do that, the district had to certify to the state that holding classes during vacation periods would impede school repairs and pose a potential hazard. In addition, many teachers worked two or three hours after regular classes -- and also for two days after the end of the regular school year -- to make up for time lost.
John Wiktorko, the district superintendent, said that Albany officials made it clear that they took classtime requirements seriously.
"It wasn't just a carte blanche that you can keep your kids out of school," Wiktorko said.
With Michael R. Ebert
and Joie Tyrrell
DISTRICTS TAKING ACTION
The districts listed indicated their plans Thursday or Friday in a Newsday survey, in interviews, or through public relations representatives. About 15 more districts were identified, but not named, by regional BOCES officials.
Districts that have canceled vacations, superintendent's conference days or "snow days"
Districts planning to consider cancellations later
Half Hollow Hills
New Hyde Park-Garden City Park
Valley Stream 24
SOURCES: Newsday survey, Syntax, Zimmerman-Edelson