Most Hoo-siers are getting tired of winter! If you listen to the chatter anyplace where people meet and backroom barristers hold court, it is clear we impatiently await the spring thaw. These self-proclaimed barristers usually criticize our government. They think our leaders are either doing the wrong things or failing to do the right things.
We shouldn’t discourage this banter; we should encourage it. Informal discussions among our citizens clarify issues, shape public opinion and help our leaders decide what to do. Self-government began with such discussions. Its origins extend back to the direct democracy of ancient Athens, and perhaps much farther than that. Anthropologists who study contemporary primitive societies observe that some make decisions by consensus. It seems likely similar societies in our distant past also made consensual decisions.
Recent editorials, interviews and news reports reveal conflicting opinions and little consensus about how public schools should respond to this unusually harsh winter. Should state Superintendent Glenda Ritz continue to grant waivers of the 180-day rule to schools requesting them? Should she have granted any in the first place? Is State Board of Education member Daniel Elsener right or wrong when he insists no waivers should have been granted? What should local school boards and superintendents do in bad weather?
I can offer no perfect solution to these problems, but I would like to present a few concerns based on my experience as an educator and the opinions that students, parents, local school board members and other stakeholders have shared with me in the past four decades.
My first concern is implementation. I agree we should expect bad weather and include extra days in the school year to compensate for missed days, but how many days? Frankly, it’s always a guessing game and a no-win situation for school boards and administrators.
My second and greatest concern is safety. If weather conditions are bad enough to expose children to serious risk, the schools should close. Anyone driving around Kokomo can see many sidewalks are still impassible.
My third concern is fairness. Imposing financial penalties on public school corporations only hurts children. Why should they be punished for a decision their elders made?
Of course, the fines won’t really hurt children. They’re not intended to. They are simply a way to force school corporations to make up missed days by extending the school year.
My fourth concern is effectiveness. Those makeup days aren’t completely useless, but I can’t say they accomplish much, either. Shortening mid-year breaks, canceling holidays, having school on Saturdays and adding extra days at the end of the year yield very poor attendance. That’s why so many teachers show movies and assign busy work then. The mission of public schools is to teach every child. You can’t teach anything new and significant when half of your students are absent.
My fifth concern is health. There are times when canceling a few school days can limit the spread of contagious illness, keep kids healthy and actually reduce total absences. My first principal’s job was in a small nonpublic high school. A physician, whose son attended the school, informed me most of our students were his patients. He told me he was treating a lot more of them for flu than usual. He suggested closing the school on the days before and after the next weekend to keep students apart longer and limit contagion. We did that and attendance improved significantly.
My final concern is high-quality teaching and learning. Teachers must use all available time to give students the best possible learning opportunities. We should compensate for instructional time missed due to weather. However, that requires more than merely adding days to the school year. We must also find ways to make better use of those days. What worries me most is that we aren’t seeking better compensatory teaching methods and training educators to use them.
Mark Heinig Jr. of Kokomo is a retired Indiana school principal and teacher.