Storms play havoc with midwinter vacation days

Pierson High School in Sag Harbor is shown Pierson High School in Sag Harbor is shown after a blizzard with 12-to-18-inches of snow passed through the area. (Feb. 9, 2013) Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

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Most Long Island schools cast aside a decades-long tradition of a midwinter break to hold classes this week, and now some districts are canceling spring vacation days as well -- all to make up for time lost to superstorm Sandy, a November nor'easter and the recent blizzard.

Overall, 89 of the Island's 124 school districts are giving up midwinter break and holding classes for periods ranging from two to five days, according to BOCES records. The schedule changes affect 382,700 students -- 84 percent of total public-school enrollment.

Many nonpublic schools, such as Holy Trinity Diocesan High School in Hicksville and St. John the Baptist Diocesan High School in West Islip, will be open several days as well.

Schools closed for unprecedented periods, averaging six to 10 days, due to flooding, other damage and power outages from Sandy on Oct. 29 and a Nov. 7 nor'easter.

On top of that, this month's blizzard closed many schools another day or two -- particularly in Suffolk County, where roads clogged with snow and ice were impassable. That means an increasing number of districts are digging into their bank of spring vacation days, originally scheduled during the last week of March. The spring break normally encompasses Passover and Easter.

The Middle Country and Three Village districts have already decided to hold classes on March 25, and Rocky Point on March 27. Connetquot will be in session three days that week, including one day scheduled after Sandy and two days set after the blizzard. At least a dozen districts in all will be open part of that week.

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"We all got hit by two monster storms -- we don't have an option," said Joseph Rella, superintendent of the Comsewogue district in Port Jefferson Station.

Comsewogue schools will be open Tuesday through Friday and again on March 25 and 26. Rella said members of the community had been "very understanding" of the need to make up class time and avoid loss of state financial aid.

Elsewhere on the Island, vacation cancellations have generated widespread resistance from teachers, parents and students intent on fulfilling travel plans.

Glen Cove school superintendent Joseph Laria recalled that the popularity of a midwinter break developed in the aftermath of the 1973 Arab oil boycott, when fuel prices skyrocketed and administrators scrambled to save costs for heating and transportation by temporarily closing schools.

"The February break was supposed to conserve energy, and it was to be short-term," said Laria, one of the Island's longest-serving administrators. "But energy week became vacation week, and it has continued forevermore. And now touching it has become a third-rail issue. We understand that, but we just can't have kids missing eight days of instruction. Instructional time trumps vacation time."

His district, like more than a dozen others on the Island, canceled all five days of midwinter break, which begins with Presidents Day Monday.

Some educators contend that midwinter recess is an anachronism and should be abolished. There is little chance of that happening anytime in the foreseeable future, according to regional school officials planning next year's calendars.

Nonetheless, this year's cancellations have revived long-standing arguments that an extra five days of class in February would provide districts with greater flexibility in scheduling. The extra class time could be especially helpful for students enrolled in college-level Advanced Placement courses, who must be prepared for national exams in May, some teachers say.

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Advocates of scrapping midwinter break also noted that extra class time would allow districts to expand their academic calendars should this become a national and state priority. New York, like many states, requires a minimum 180 days of classes and staff training each year, compared with 190 days or more of instructional time required in most industrial countries.

"Right now, you can't do that on Long Island, because it [midwinter break] has become sacred," said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. The organization, headquartered in Alexandria, Va., represents more than 13,000 superintendents and other educational leaders.

Domenech, a school superintendent in Suffolk County from 1978 to 1997, knows firsthand the difficulties of changing familiar school schedules.

"When I was a superintendent on Long Island, I tried to do away with midwinter break to no avail, because it was popular with teaching staff and parents," he recalled. "They all had their ski trips planned, and trips to sandy beaches. But the reality is, when you go around the country, you can see this is primarily a Northeast tradition."

For the Island's students and school employees, adjusting to schedule changes can pose difficult decisions.

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Erica Doherty, 17, a senior at Centereach High School, is sticking with plans to tour Spain this week along with 11 other students from her school. The trip, scheduled more than a year ago, will combine vacation time with visits to museums and other cultural sites.

Centereach High will be open Tuesday through Friday. Doherty said she could not cancel the trip without losing a large deposit, and she will take along homework assignments in the hope of not falling behind in her studies.

"I'm going to try to get as much done on the plane as possible," she said.

Cathy Ciacco, a registered school nurse in Syosset, was able to change her Caribbean vacation plans after an airline granted her credit for flights she had booked for this week.

As a result, Ciacco will be on duty Tuesday through Friday at St. Edward the Confessor School, a Catholic institution where she has been assigned by the local district.

"Well, I would love the break," Ciacco said. "But as long as they don't take away Easter vacation, we'll be OK."

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