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Superstorm snows put school systems behind schedule

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A snow day is more than a chance for children to go sledding or an inconvenience for parents.

When schools are closed for an extended period due to weather events like those seen in West Virginia last week, teachers lose time to prepare their pupils while some students lose the chance at a hot meal.

"I think the concerted effort is we definitely have to maximize instructional time, which might mean there are things that have to go to the wayside," said James Brown, superintendent of Raleigh County Schools.

His students returned to class Friday after missing the rest of the week because of road and power outage problems caused by Superstorm Sandy. Raleigh County was not alone: 16 counties closed all or some schools Friday and at least 21 counties closed school for three or more days last week, according to preliminary data for the state department of education.

The same of level review that's necessary after the summer break isn't needed, but Brown said teachers need to evaluate what lessons are necessary once class resumes. Teachers and schools have their own strategies to make sure students are where they need to be, but Brown said that might change due to lost time.

Snow days are not new to Raleigh or other counties: Once the traditional snow season kicks in, Grant County Superintendent DeEdra Lundeen Bolton said many teachers send home "snow packs" - a little extra work in case inclement weather closes school.

Although some teachers might have sent them home this week, Bolton said they were caught off guard by the severity of the storm.

"We were not anticipating a hurricane keeping us out for a week," Bolton said.

Although most Grant County schools missed less than three days, Bolton said the Union Educational Complex's mountainous location kept it closed all week. Located in Mt. Storm, which received close to three feet of snow, Bolton said the roughly 260 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade at the school would have some ground to make up this week.

Teachers reported to work Friday to prepare their new lessons, she said. It will take more than simple review or repetition to make sure students understand material they've missed.

"The good news is we have 175 days to do that. The bad news is, we did have 180," Bolton said. "The issue becomes ensuring teachers are doing things with the same depth, but are very efficient with their delivery."

Like Brown, she said the teachers know their students and will be able to effectively change their plans not only to make up for lost time but also to accommodate the lessons the students would normally receive this week.

Some students or classes could be affected more than others said Keith Butcher, superintendent of Fayette County Schools. His school system opened with a two-hour delay Friday after being closed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but Butcher knows not every student will be back. Some busses couldn't complete their routes, and as much as 10 percent of the county was still without power Friday morning. That could mean, for example, that students in a science class might have to completely recreate an experiment they had started earlier in the week or year, he said.

As Fayette and other counties rely more on group-based learning, Butcher also said those students who miss additional time might need more attention than their peers.

"We are aware that there will be those students who may not be back until Monday," Butcher said Friday, talking about group learning. "(If) that was ongoing, it will have to be adjusted, so learning can continue."

Many students have missed out on more than a group project though: 52 percent of children at West Virginia schools qualify for free and reduced price meals. Like Bolton, Pendleton County Superintendent Doug Lambert said the storm caught his county off guard. His school system returned to school Friday - in a county where 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price meals, he admitted those four days could have been tough.

"Yeah, I would think that some (students) did without, and that's shameful," Lambert said. "But it was beyond our control, and their control."

The people of Pendleton County take care of their neighbors, Lambert said, and he's optimistic they did so last week. He also said power crews did everything they could to restore electricity to his facilities.  

Last year, Fayette County Schools served almost 35,000 suppers after school to students, and all of the students at more than half of the schools in the county receive free and reduced meals. Butcher said he recognizes there might have been issues this week.

"When those students miss those two meals . . . that gap in nutrition is really going to be felt," Butcher said, referencing breakfast and lunch.

Emergency shelters in the county were established to help those students or others in need, Butcher said.

There were similar problems at the Union Education Center Bolton said, where 61 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price meals. After normally supplying food to the students, she said it just wasn't safe enough at the school for the students, regardless of their food situation.

"Mount Storm and the union area . . . are a very tight-knit community and they help each other, and I have not had any reports that there is any child in need from any standpoint," Bolton said.

More than half of the Raleigh County students qualify for free and reduced meals, Brown said. The Salvation Army has established shelters at three schools this past week, which Brown said has helped alleviate some concerns in those communities. He also stressed student safety is the number one concern for the county right now.

In Kanawha County, most schools opened after two snow days. Because of power outages though, several remained closed longer. With more than half of Kanawha's students qualifying for free and reduced price meals, Superintendent Ron Duerring said it falls on the parent's shoulders to feed their children on snow days. He wasn't sure if students at the schools that remained closed for an extended amount of time had trouble finding food.   

"I can't say that; I'm not in their homes," Duerring said.

Several superintendents said there has been some food lost from freezers at the school's thawing out. Nutrition directors in those counties have been working to ship old food out and schedule new food deliveries.

The state Department of Education can establish emergency feedings sites, similar to sites established during the summer, said spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro. However, those are only used in a "long-term emergency," lasting several weeks or months, she said Friday in an email.

The department encourages teachers to adjust plans as needed in order to accelerate progress, Cordeiro said. Snow packs, reading outside of school or using the Learn21 software on its website are a great way to stave off regression.

The full academic impact of the days away from class for schools across the state is still unknown; Duerring said Friday there is still plenty of time left to account for the missed lessons. But with winter months approaching, administrators aren't confident these will be the last snow days for the year.

"We are (nervous)," Lambert said. "Let's be fair: we live in West Virginia and the climate is pretty diverse."

Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.


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