When Pascack Valley Regional High School District asked the state’s permission to count a February “snow day” on which students stayed home but took online classes as an official day of school, the first questions were whether it was rigorous enough and whether it was accessible to all students.
Four months later, it turns out that state law limits the ultimate decision to something much more simple: If school buildings weren’t open, it doesn’t count as school.
The state Department of Education last week informed the Bergen County district that despite all the work and creativity that went into organizing a day of virtual instruction on Feb. 13, it didn’t count as one of the state-mandated 180 days of classes in the school year.
In a one-page letter to the district, Assistant Education Commissioner Evo Popoff praised the district for its “innovative spirit” and what he called its efforts to provide a “high-quality education in spite of the extreme weather.”
But he said it came down the state law — written in 1996 in a pre-virtual age — that says a school day must actually be spent in a school.
“We cannot, at this time, allow the virtual school day to count toward the requirements of (state law) for the 2013-14 school year, because public school facilities were not available during the virtual school day,” Popoff wrote.
He said it was the same standard that required districts after Hurricane Sandy to open on weekends and holidays to make up for lost days and meet the 180-day rule.
While awaiting the decision, the school district had already made up the day during its spring break. Still, the superintendent said Friday that he had hoped to win a state’s backing, especially after the Education Department took four months to decide what eventually came down to a straight legal reading.
Raising the district’s hopes, the state had also hosted a workshop for districts interested in the virtual snow day model, with Pascack Valley a main presenter.
“It would have been beneficial if it could have been decided more expeditiously, but we are still pleased that the department recognized the innovative spirit that was exercised by administrators, teachers and, frankly, the students,” said Superintendent Erik Gundersen.
Gundersen wondered if maybe the ruling would have been different if he had at least a few staff members come to school that day and had opened the building for students who could attend. But he said the whole point of closing school was due to the poor travel conditions and other hazards posed by the snowstorm.
Gundersen said he has no regrets about the effort.
“The students made out well,” he said. “They had one more day of teaching and learning.”
And Gundersen said maybe it will prompt the Christie administration or the Legislature to propose a change in the statute that would open the way for different ways of learning – at least in case of emergencies.
“It should by no means replace regular school, but it provides a fantastic opportunity of a way for school to continue (during inclement weather),” he said.
“Hopefully, this will open up the discussion to reconsider what has become ancient language in our statutes.”