Opening public schools tomorrow is in doubt

Officials of area systems note snowy sidewalks and roads, hope for waivers

The Snowstorm Of 2003

February 20, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Schools in the Baltimore region remained closed today for the third snow day in a row, and many officials were skeptical about being able to reopen school doors to students tomorrow because of inaccessible roads, sidewalks and facilities.

Baltimore County and Prince George's County already have decided to keep schools closed tomorrow. Officials in Baltimore County said many of the system's 766 school buses are trapped in snow and not all school buildings are yet serviceable.

School officials in Baltimore and in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties had not yet decided last evening whether to stay shut for the last day of the week.

Administrators in many school systems were scheduled to return to work today, although some districts had liberal leave policies in effect.

School systems are grappling with how to satisfy the state's requirement that students receive 180 days of instruction yearly. State education officials said many superintendents have called to ask about how Maryland's official state of emergency - in effect since Sunday - affects their chances of obtaining a waiver of that figure from the state Board of Education.

State of emergency

Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has said snow day closures that occur while the state of emergency is in effect are likely to be waived.

The state board granted a four-day waiver in 2000, a year in which Maryland was pummeled by a hurricane and two snowstorms. In 1996, the board waived two days because of a blizzard. Each year, the waivers equaled the number of days that a state of emergency was in effect.

So far, Garrett County - which was buried under 4 feet in the last storm and has received more than 200 inches so far this winter - is the only system to have applied for a waiver. Schools had been scheduled to be in session during the Presidents Day holiday to make up a lost day, a state schools spokesman said.

Carroll County's schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he plans to seek a waiver. "I don't know how many days we'll ask for, but we'll certainly ask for some waiver," he said.

Baltimore County school officials will wait and see.

"I hate to say it, but we still have quite a ways of winter to go," said Charles A. Herndon, a system spokesman.

School systems have budgeted for and used up a varying number of snow days this winter. Howard County schools had planned for five snow days and have used nine. Schools in Baltimore, Howard and Carroll counties have used at least three more snow days than they planned for.

If they must make do without waivers, school systems could lengthen the school year or trim spring breaks.

Douglas J. Neilson, chief communications officer for Baltimore County schools, said officials announced tomorrow's closure early to give parents time to make arrangements for the care of their children. Many schools have before- and after-care programs for students.

Equipment on loan

Neilson said the county had started digging out schools but has "a long way to go." Part of the problem was that county road crews were using some snow-removal equipment that belongs to the school system.

There was also concern for students who walk to school. He said school officials did not want students walking in the streets, but many sidewalks leading to schools had not been cleared.

Neilson said county crews had to dig out 766 buses in lots all over the county: "We are attacking it as best we can."

Already, some school officials say the snow is causing setbacks in instruction. Students across the state are missing out on time to prepare to take the Maryland School Assessments test during the first week of March.

State education officials will not postpone the tests, which are being administered this year for the first time.

"The tests can't be moved," said Ronald A. Peiffer, the state's assistant schools superintendent. "We literally have activities planned down to the hour between now and Aug. 22, when we release the results."

Sun staff writers Tricia Bishop, Liz Bowie, Linda Linley, Jennifer McMenamin, Jonathan D. Rockoff and Ted Shelsby contributed to this article.

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