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Editorial: State should stand firm on 180-day school rule

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Editorial: State should stand firm on 180-day school rule
Herald- Dispatch editorial

West Virginia has long had a law on the books that its public schools should provide 180 days of instruction each school year. But, as it often turned out, that seemed to be more of a suggestion than a mandate. Restrictions on the length of the school year combined with inclement weather during the winter often made providing 180 days of instruction impossible.

In fact, during the 2009-2010 school year, not one of the state's 55 county systems met the 180-day requirement. In 2010, finally, the legislature decided to do something about the situation. At the urging of then-Gov. Joe Manchin, the legislature eased restrictions on school calendars, eliminating the rule that the school year could not begin before Aug. 26 nor go beyond June 8. That helped some, but each county's school calendar still had to fit in the 200-day window mandated by teacher contracts.

More work was needed. Again, the state's rules were loosened, so that county school systems could expand their school calendars to 48 weeks long if necessary to make up for lost school days because of snow, extreme cold or other reasons. That increased flexibility began with the 2013-2014 school year and continues into the current year.

Along with that increased latitude came the renewed mandate that 180 days of instruction must be met - and that the requirement means 180 separate days.
However, state school officials acted last week to leave a window open for counties to fall short of that mandate.

The state Board of Education on Wednesday voted 6-1 to approve a waiver process by which county school systems can ask to make up fewer days after snow-day cancellations if they will have a difficult time meeting the 180-day requirement. Under that process, school districts will have until April 1 to ask the state board for permission to not make up school days that were canceled due to states of emergency. It so happened that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency on March 4 as a major snow storm and widespread flooding hit the state.

Under the waiver process, school systems also could ask to use accrued instructional time to make up missed days. Accrued time are minutes counties build up by having students in classrooms longer each day than the state-set minimum required educational time. Those now can only be used to make up for teaching time missed for school delays, early dismissals and faculty senate meetings - not for making up entire days.

State board member Wayne Linger, the only one to vote against the waiver process, asked a pertinent question during the board's session Wednesday. "Are we backing down from 180 days, is that what we're doing?" he asked. A response from board member Lloyd Jackson was not encouraging. "Kind of feels like we're doing that, doesn't it?" said Jackson, who voted to approve the waiver.
Indeed it does.

Heather Hutchens, general counsel for the state Department of Education, advised the state board that it will have to determine whether any school districts that apply for a waiver can show they in "good faith" tried to build a calendar preparing for possible missed days and have exhausted all other options. In implementing this waiver process, that should be the yardstick. Counties that didn't take advantage of their new flexibility in building calendars should not be let off the hook.

Allowing instructional time to suffer - as it did so often in the past - hardly makes sense for a state with some of the lowest student achievement scores in the country. While other factors play into student achievement, maintaining a minimum amount of learning time is important.

Under the state's current school calendar rules, only extreme circumstances justify letting any counties to miss the 180-day mark.