After the water crisis, schools worry about snow days

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By Mackenzie Mays
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Kanawha County students have missed six days because of the recent water contamination crisis. That left school officials one makeup day left before they would be forced to cut into the 180 days of required instructional time for students.

With several inches of snow forecast for Tuesday, local education leaders used that one remaining makeup day, making concerns about students' extended time out of class even more important.

"I'm very nervous. But, we've had no choice. We couldn't put them in school because we didn't have any clean water. People still aren't confident in the water," Kanawha County school board President Pete Thaw said Monday. "Kanawha has a very good record -- probably the best in the state -- with hitting that 180-day mark. It will be very close."

Boone County, where schools have also been closed since the chemical leak, announced Monday afternoon that schools would be closed Tuesday. Kanawha County officials canceled schools early Tuesday, along with many other counties in the state.

The nine school districts impacted by the leak into the Elk River on Jan. 9 are hoping the state chooses to exempt the lost time from the 180-day requirement.

State law gives West Virginia Schools Superintendent Jim Phares the option of decreasing students' required days in case of a federal disaster declaration that is directly related to the reason the schools aren't in session. President Obama declared the Freedom Industries chemical leak a disaster within hours after the do-not-use water advisory was announced.

Phares has not yet made that decision.

"I'm hoping the state [school] board is going to give us some latitude because we certainly deserve it. We didn't cause any of this, nor did the children," Thaw said.

The water crisis comes against a background of education reform, with new laws designed to more strictly mandate the 180 days of instructional time slated to go into effect next year.

"It's not that there will be consequences, there will be additional options," Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordiero said. "When the new law kicks in, it gives county systems more control related to that."

In their recorded message Monday evening, school officials said bottled water would be available for students to drink throughout the week, and that meals would be prepared without water.

Guidance from the state Department of Education and the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department was followed in getting the schools ready, and certified plumbers flushed pipes at each school, according to the message.

Kanawha County school board members Becky Jordon and Robin Rector had both received concerned phone calls by Monday afternoon -- a no-school day recognizing Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- from parents worried about a potential snow day Tuesday.

Kanawha County students have only been in school for three and a half days since they returned from the holiday break, thanks to the water crisis and freezing temperatures prior.

With concerns about learning loss, some teachers have even begun sending assignments to students via email, Jordon said.

She worries that the pressure on teachers to catch students up could be dangerous as well.

"I know teachers are going to try to rush it once we get back, but you've got to make sure the kids understand it. You can't rush it too much, you've got to teach it," Jordon said. "Parents are concerned. We're all concerned."

"I don't know what we'll do if February is bad," she said.

Rector said it's crucial to get students re-acclimated so that they can begin preparing for standardized testing scheduled for the spring, and said while the county takes the required 180-days seriously, there's only so much you can do.

"We don't want to be one of those counties that doesn't meet the standard. But, if it comes down that it just mathematically can't be done because of the laws surrounding it, then we may run out of ways to make it happen," she said.

Parents are concerned enough already about their students' health in schools in the midst of the water problem, Rector said.

"We're being told everything's fine but we're all just operating at a high level of conservatism," she said.