January 29, 2014 - Wednesday marked the eighth day so far this winter that school has been cancelled in the Brandon District.
Brandon buses in the snow. (click for larger version)
That is two days beyond the six snow days allowed for the entire year, with an arrival two days before the end of January. With several weeks left of winter, students and teachers may find themselves still in the classroom past the expected end of the school year.
"I'm concerned about how many snow days we've already had, this is really unusual, but we have to be safe," said Superintendent Lorrie McMahon. "This is the worst year for weather since I've been here and gravel roads make it worse."
Schools are permitted six cancelled school days due to inclement weather. Brandon reached its sixth and final allotted day on Jan. 24. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this past week, school was cancelled for exceedingly cold temperatures. While there is no set temperature threshold, McMahon noted on Tuesday morning, the weather was -15 to -25 with the wind chill factored in. Such temperatures pose too great a risk to the safety of students, she said, and also present possible mechanical issues with buses not starting, although that has not been a problem in Brandon yet.
Last year, Brandon had seven snow days, but did not reach their allotment until March. The state resets the clock on snow days April 1, so any missed days after that will not have to be made up. However, with more than eight weeks to go before the reset, more cancellations are likely.
"It's a normal problem in spring, when it gets to 30 and rains, and then freezes overnight on the back roads," said McMahon.
Although the district is already two days over on snow days, the number of half days on Brandon's calendar may allow them one extra day, McMahon said. She has already determined that April 21, planned as an off day, may be used as a make-up day, but there are no other available days as the district will not cut short spring break, nor scrap planned professional development days. Extending school days is also not an option.
"We have to add days as we understand the law," McMahon said. "We can't make it up with minutes."
As of Wednesday, Jan. 22 the Goodrich School District is now two days over the permitted six snow days.
"Some districts will extend the school day a few minutes per day to make up the snow days," said Scott Bogner, Goodrich Schools superintendent. "My goal will be to add the days at the end of the school year. We have a rule of a wind chill of negative 20 degrees to close schools—not just too much snow or hazardous driving."
"Our buses are diesel and while we mix in additives to prevent jelling in the extreme cold they can stall and fail. We don't want a busload of students stranded in subzero weather. In addition, kids are out at bus stops and some walk to school—it does not take long in such dangerous weather (to get frostbite). I'd rather be safe than sorry, and err on the side of caution."
The state legislature has the ability to forgive days, although the districts can't count on that.
State Senator Dave Robertson, who serves the 26th District including Atlas, Brandon and Groveland townships, said he has not received a specific request from Brandon or other districts to grant a greater number of snow days, but believes "the discretion is there."
"We are striving to have a full school year, the total number of days required in the school year by law," he said. "If the winter gets still more harsh, the issue could be visited by the legislature... My understanding is there is some precedent."
Robertson noted districts can alter their schedules to make up the days, but acknowledged that if it is many days, "legislative action may be necessary."
"As severe as this winter is, I don't know that it requires legislation yet," he said. "If I hear from school districts that they need it, we will address it in the necessary forum. It is paramount that children have a full school year, but we also want to keep them safe."
Editor David Fleet contributed to this story.
Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville