After snowstorm, Irene, East is low on snow days

AP News
Posted: Nov 04, 2011 3:00 AM
After snowstorm, Irene, East is low on snow days

The snowstorm that left hundreds of thousands of Northeast residents coping with darkness, cold and boredom has another legacy: it has wiped out a full week of snow days for many school districts.

Throughout the region and especially in hard-hit Connecticut, districts that lost several snow days to the remnants of Hurricane Irene in August found themselves losing days this week, too, because of snow-related power failures and tree damage. Some have begun wondering if they would have to cut into vacations to regain the lost time.

About 589,000 homes and businesses in the Northeast _ more than half of them in Connecticut _ were still without power late Thursday. Makeshift relief centers were filled with weary parents and restless children.

The number of lost school days is forcing some districts to consider trimming their winter or spring vacations to ensure school doesn't stretch beyond June _ a consideration virtually unheard of so early in the academic year.

"It's a difficult situation when you lose five off the bat. It's only November and we haven't even had the real snow yet," said Paul K. Smith, superintendent of Bolton's schools, which were set to remain closed Friday for their fifth consecutive day.

He and several other superintendents said that the past 10 months have been unlike any they remember in recent decades.

Record-setting snows in January forced many districts in Connecticut and elsewhere to stretch their school years to compensate for lost days _ and just as they breathed a sigh of relief, Irene swept through the Northeast to steal away days at the start of the new school year.

Then, last weekend's rare October snow completed the triple whammy, forcing them to cancel even more days.

It also comes as many districts were wrapping up their marking periods and trying to compile report cards; as several sports were heading into state and regional tournaments; and as many students faced a Nov. 1 deadline for early admission consideration in certain colleges, some of which have said they will be flexible under the circumstances.

Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and some other states require public schools to have at least 180 days of classes and cannot extend the school year beyond June 30. Their state education departments can grant waivers in extraordinary circumstances, but rarely do.

"If this were to have occurred in March or April, then you're really up against it and at that point you'd probably be looking for some relief at the state level. But at this point so early in the year, there's still some flexibility to make up those days," said Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.

Schools in Tolland, outside Hartford, lost 11 days to snow cancellations last year, 10 of them in January alone. As of this week, its numbers were sneaking up again for the new school year: three days lost from Irene and five this week from the snowstorm, forcing its school board to consider whether to reduce winter or spring vacations.

As for whether snowy days are ahead that could exacerbate the situation, Tolland schools Superintendent William Guzman was trying Thursday to balance optimism and realism: "I'm wishing for a mild winter and just taking it one day at a time."

Several students and parents said Thursday that being flexible was the only way they could maintain their humor as they gritted their teeth and faced another day without power, classes and many basic amenities. Several districts expected to reopen Monday but were not certain whether it would be possible.

"There's wires down all over in our neighborhood, so I don't know if they'll be gone and the buses can get in and out," said 13-year-old Brigid Gauthier, an eighth-grader in Simsbury, one of several towns remaining largely without power Thursday.

Tension over the slow progress some utilities have made in restoring power has led to reports of threats in some states.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said utility workers have been harassed by people still without power as a result of Saturday's snowstorm. He said at least three arrests have been made but had no details.

In Massachusetts, National Grid spokeswoman Jackie Barry said there have been a few "isolated incidents" of customers who have approached crews aggressively, but "the vast majority of our customers have been terrific. They've been bringing our crews coffee and food and they've been ... thanking them. ..."

Mitch Gross of Connecticut Light and Power, which is part of Northeast Utilities System that also serves Massachusetts, said while he is unaware of any physical violence, there has been "activity over the phones toward our customer service people ... and others in the field have felt threatened as well."

Even students and families whose electricity had been restored or who never lost it were thrown off kilter by the school days cancellations and what it meant to their schedules.

Seventeen-year-old Josh Florez, a senior at West Hartford's Conard High School, was spending his days volunteering at the town's relief shelter at the school, keeping up with training for his cross-country team and trying to schedule interviews with members of the state's congressional delegation for his hoped-for nomination to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

But he had faith Thursday that once classes resumed, teachers would pace the lessons to catch up without overwhelming students and that in the end, it would all work out.

"They'll make it so it's not impossible on us. I feel pretty confident they'll figure it out," Florez said.


Associated Press writer Rodrique Ngowi in Boston contributed to this report.