Floods, hurricanes, tropical storms, ice and snow have all robbed South Carolina’s students of classroom instructional time over the past several years.
After the skies cleared, school districts' calendars have been scrambled as officials try to minimize disruption to students and their families while complying with state law.
South Carolina’s school districts are required to plan for 180 instructional days and three days that can be used for make-up days in case of bad weather.
After districts use up those three make-up days, local school boards can forgive up to three more days, and the state Board of Education can waive three more at the local school board’s request, according to a 2015 state law.
Districts can also opt to lengthen school days or hold classes on Saturday, as Beaufort County did on Nov. 18 and Dec. 16 to make up the two days it missed during Tropical Storm Irma.
Now some wonder if districts — at least those on the coast — should plan for more than the state-mandated three make-up days in their academic calendars.
“The board needs to seriously consider increasing the number of make-up days in the school year,” said Charleston County School Board member Cindy Bohn Coats.
For the most part, schools in the Midlands and Upstate have had fewer issues than those in the Lowcountry. Last year, for instance, schools in Lexington and Richland counties made up all three days students missed for Hurricane Matthew.
'High level of closures'
As district officials set their calendars, planning for bad weather can be tricky.
South Carolina’s public school students were barely three weeks into this academic year when Irma brushed the coast with high winds and heavy rains in September. Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester all canceled school on Sept. 8, 11 and 12, figuring to use their make-up days in their stead.
Then came Jan. 3's Winter Storm Grayson, which brought with it icy conditions and near-record snowfall that forced several additional missed days — as much as a week in some cases. That left local districts wondering how they can deal with the latest unscheduled time off and whether there will be more lost days before winter ends.
It’s a problem that seems to be growing.
The state Department of Education acknowledges “a high level of closures over the past few years,” said spokesman Ryan Brown.
For example, the last time students in Dorchester District 2 had a full 180 instructional days was in the 2012-13 school year. Since then, the number of school days missed due to inclement weather has been: 4, 5, 4, 6 and, this year, 8.
Horry County missed eight days last year and four so far this year, according to spokeswoman Lisa Bourcier. The district made up the one day it closed for Irma on Oct. 9 and has scheduled Jan. 16 and Feb. 19 to compensate for two of three snow days. Make-up plans for the last day will be announced, Bourcier said.
'Beyond our control'
Decisions to close schools are not made lightly.
School officials work hand in hand with local emergency management centers to decide when to close, Brown said. Additionally, schools are sometimes closed so that they can be used as shelters and buses can be activated for emergency evacuations and transportation, he said.
“We have to accept that various factors are beyond our control — weather, the time needed to sanitize and clean schools after they have been used as shelters, and the fact that school buses are used for evacuations,” Coats said.
While many criticized Charleston County for staying closed on Jan. 9 as temperatures soared into the 70s, district officials defended their stance, saying the decision was made after “an exhaustive assessment of roadways and school campuses” that included having bus drivers run their routes.
Although most districts have not yet decided how to handle the most recent closures, a Charleston County School Board committee unanimously agreed this week to waive the days, a proposition that will be finalized at the Jan. 22 board meeting. It will also ask the state board to forgive two days, Chairwoman Kate Darby said.
Statewide, districts last year missed a total of 372 school days due to weather — an average of 4.4 days per district. Of those, 241 days were made up, 97 days were waived by local school boards and 28 days were forgiven by the state board.
Marion County School District missed the most, 10, half of which were made up, according to the state board.
Dorchester District 4 students were out nine days after Hurricane Matthew but made up six of those. The last three were excused by the district’s board.
“We think it’s important to get in as many instructional days as possible,” said Superintendent Morris Ravenell. “We want to make sure they get enough instructional days so that they can do the best that they can on end-of-year and end-of-course testing.”
Students and district officials are held accountable for material regardless of the number of days school is canceled, he said.
“Of course, the purpose of make-up days is to replace lost instructional time, which can be a challenge when there are limited choices available,” said Dorchester 2 spokeswoman Pat Raynor.
Changing the calendar mid-year can be difficult.
Families balk when planned days-off are taken away, and days tacked on to the end of the year often end up being wasted time, with high absences and little instruction, officials said.
Charleston County got some push-back when the week-long Thanksgiving Break was shortened by two days.
"People were pretty understanding about that, but we got some feedback from people that they’d planned to go out of town," Darby said. "My response is, if the calendar says it's a potential make-up day, you shouldn't count on being off."