Schools brace for more ‘calamity days’

It was a frigid and sometimes snowy start to the year, and schools, students and parents felt the impact.

Cold, snow and treacherous roads closed most Washington County schools for at least two days in the first two weeks of the new year and prompted two-hour start delays on several days.

Superintendents said that some weather closures, also called “calamity days,” are built into the annual school calendar, and some back-up provisions are made to allow students to study at home.

Frontier Local Schools Superintendent Brian Rentsche said his district has used up three of its five scheduled calamity days this year, and will if necessary use blizzard bags – kits that include homework assignments – for three days beyond that.

“Once we get into day nine, the plan would be to utilize make-up days,” Rentsche said, explaining that the school calendar includes provisions for students to attend school if necessary on days that are designated as holiday break time.

The blizzard bags, he said, include prepared lessons in a variety of subjects that are most often review material.

Rentsche said the schools’ main concern is safety in transporting students and ensuring the buildings are functioning properly once they arrive at school.

“The biggest problems come from rain, snow and icy roads, and that’s to be expected here,” he said. “When you’re in the position of checking, the question is, can the buses safely transport kids to school? We’d rather err on the side of caution. The superintendents in the county are in constant communication regarding road conditions, and when a storm hits, it’s pretty stressful making that call, but safety is our No. 1 priority.”

In the Fort Frye district, the first two weeks of January saw two days of two-hour delayed starts and two days of closing related to weather, superintendent Stephanie Starcher said. Like Frontier, Fort Frye has five days of weather closures built into the calendar and three days of blizzard bag studies from home before the district has to start holding school on make-up days.

In addition to the transportation challenges, two of the district’s buildings had heating problems related to weather, she said.

Belpre City Schools Superintendent Tony Dunn said Belpre also provides for five calamity days and three blizzard bag days, after which make-up days have to be held. The Belpre make-up days are Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Feb. 19, Presidents Day, and March 26-28, which fall during spring break.

Belpre has used three of its five calamity days this school year, two because of weather early this month and one in October during the IEI industrial fire in Parkersburg when the city was blanketed with smoke.

Although weather closures don’t affect teacher compensation because they are paid under an annual contract, Dunn said, there are expenses involved in closing schools.

“Winter weather is disastrous on school financing,” he said. “The additional (personnel) hours and supplies needed to clear snow and ice from our campuses and keep people safe is a black hole in our operating expenses. When kids and teachers aren’t here, we still have to heat the buildings and maintain them … It is monumental and hugely expensive.”

Dunn said provisions are made in the annual budget but with little certainty.

“It is like bowling with a curtain in front of the pins,” he said. “Sometimes we budget enough, sometimes too much, sometimes not enough. We do our budgets in the spring, but who knows then what winter will bring?”

One water line burst in one of the Belpre buildings, with the associated repair and clean-up expenses, he said. Fort Frye and Warren Local Schools reported similar episodes, and Frontier, having recently installed new HVAC systems and controls, experienced heating problems as the cold front swept into the area.

Doug Baldwin, superintendent of Wolf Creek Local Schools, said his schools had delays on two days and closed for two days because of weather and road conditions. The district does not use blizzard bags, he said, and its make-up days if needed are Jan. 15, Feb. 16, Feb. 19, April 2 and May 29.

Marietta City Schools Superintendent Will Hampton said the district has had three days in which the start of school was delayed by two hours, and two days on which school wasn’t held at all.

Although the cold weather moderated this week, with highs today forecast to reach the 60s, another cold weather system is expected to move in this weekend, with single digit lows predicted for several days and daytime highs at or below freezing.

As of Tuesday, the National Weather Service unofficial daily archives indicated that overall average temperatures in Marietta-Parkersburg since Jan. 1 have been more than 17 degrees below normal.