SCHOOL until the Fourth of July?
Don't laugh. Kids may be in school longer this year because snow and bitter cold have just about obliterated the calendar at school systems in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states.
``I can tell you, the entire state is right at the limit or over it already,'' says Carl Friedman, an associate in planning and evaluation in the New York State Department of Education in Albany.
Most Northeastern states allow three to four school days off in winter, resulting in 180 school days. But, so far, schools have taken off seven to eight days.
To make up time, districts are starting to take back vacation days. Many have already removed Feb. 18, the Friday before President's Day. Spring break is also suddenly disappearing.
The shrinking vacation time has knocked out a London and Switzerland trip for Jan and John Cummings and their four children, who live in Towson, Md. Because of snow days, the Baltimore school district has taken back three vacation days. Mrs. Cummings would like her children to go to classes on Saturday instead. ``We need a vacation,'' she explains.
Roger Garrison, a teacher in the Ossining, N.Y., school system, says he senses that the children are tired of winter as well. ``At first, it was new and exciting to get school canceled, but now when they announce school is getting out early, none of the kids say: `YEA!' '' he says.
``I think they are bored with the winter,'' agrees Linda Cameron, whose two children, Taylor and Hadley, have been off eight days in Bethlehem, Pa. Asked what she thinks, eight-year-old Hadley says she is glad to be off from school. But how about extra days in June? ``I don't like that,'' she states.
Although snow days must be made up, principals and superintendents are concerned about the prospect of school continuing through June or July without a break. ``You reach the point of diminishing returns on how much the kids can learn, if you have too many consecutive days without some sort of breather,'' says Warren Mata, Hanover Elementary School principal in Bethlehem. The district has tentatively decided to add days onto the end of the school year rather than take more days from vacation.
It's not just canceled classes that hurt but also canceled after-school activities. ``All three of my boys play basketball, and they need it as an outlet,'' says Sue Dieser of Bethlehem. Her four children (including one girl) have built snow forts and had snowball fights, but Mrs. Dieser says they get bored with that after a while.
In Virginia, some schools have started to extend the school day. The state recently gave the schools that latitude by mandating 180 days of instruction or 990 hours. ``One strategy is to add 30 minutes or an hour per day to make up time,'' says James Foudriat, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. Many schools in Virginia were closed during the period of bitter cold in January when power was curtailed. Still others have been hard-hit by icy roads.
The extra time at home is causing all kinds of problems for parents who both work. ``I've used up all my favors with my neighbors,'' says Gaye Torrance, who lives in Short Hills, N.J., and runs her own public-relations firm in New York. This week's snowstorm was particularly difficult for Ms. Torrance. Her husband, who usually works minutes from home, was in Dallas on business. So she had to leave work early to pick up her children, Jay and Caraline. ``I was just fortunate I didn't have to cancel any important meetings,'' she adds.
If her children are alone, Mrs. Dieser, who teaches in Quakertown while her husband, John, runs a travel business in Bethlehem, makes sure to leave them a list of things that must be completed. ``And you worry, and you call them a lot,'' she adds.
R. GARRISON says the problem of working parents is one reason why districts are more hesitant to cancel school once it starts. ``If you do it early, then parents can line up day care or make arrangements.''
But snow has not been the only problem. Many schools canceled classes when temperatures with the wind-chill factor dropped below zero. ``When you have a kindergarten child waiting for a school bus, and the wind chill is 50 below zero, you have a problem,'' Mr. Friedman says.
Winter weather is also throwing school budgets out the window. ``If you cringe when you see your heating bill, just think about what it is costing to heat the schools,'' Friedman states. Some districts are struggling to pay for water damage after pipes froze and burst during the cold snap.