CINCINNATI -- Ohio's latest attempt at giving educators flexibility to innovate rolls out this fall when schools do away with snow days and count required time in school by the hour instead of the day.
Last year's harsh winter forced many school districts to extend their school years or eliminate scheduled off days to make up for all of the snow days – technically called calamity days by Ohio.
But beginning this fall, calamity days are history, along with the 180-day minimum that most public and private schools had to meet. Instead, schools will have to hold class or other supervised instruction for a minimum number of hours:
• 1,001 hours for grades 7-12
• 910 hours for full-day kindergarten through sixth grade
• 455 hours for half-day kindergarten.
When schools are forced to close for bad weather or a busted boiler, they can still meet the minimum number of hours required as long as they have scheduled an adequate number of extra ones. Schools can still use up to three "blizzard bags" – instructional materials to be used at home when schools are closed.
The law requires schools to stick to five-day class weeks, but schools and districts choose to shorten their school years by lengthening their school days if they wish, said John Charlton, an Ohio Department of Education spokesman.
"The law provides some flexibility for schools and districts to schedule class time," he said. "And if they are going to make a change to the schedule, it has to be approved by the school board and be discussed in a public meeting."
The change applies to Catholic and other private schools as well as public schools, with the exception of schools whose teachers are under existing contracts that conflict with the change and non-traditional schools that are granted waivers by the state.
State guidelines consider study halls, religious services and even time between classes as legitimate hours spent in school. Sports and other extracurricular activities and events that involve some but not all students do not count.
Charlton said schools were in session an average of 1,126 hours last year, leaving them a big cushion for unexpected closures if they stick to similar schedules. He said most superintendents he has talked to don't intend to reduce class time even if they're many hours over the minimum.
"Most feel they don’t want to shorten the school day because they want to get as much time in the seats as possible," he said.
Greater Cincinnati parents, educators and advocates reacted positively to the change, although some were not aware of it.
"I think there's a big knowledge gap out there among people who don’t realize the change," said Dr. Erin Fries, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at St. Gabriel School in Glendale.
With the new flexibility, St. Gabriel shortened its school year by about five days this year, which still gives the school about a 20-day cushion for unscheduled closures. "Even with the winter like we had last year, we wouldn't need that many. We still have plenty of cushion," Fries said.
Last year, St. Gabriel used all of its calamity days and used one "blizzard bag," which allows schools to assign work to be done at home in lieu of actual class time. The school was glad to be able to shorten its year by a few days but wouldn't have considered slashing the calendar.
"We have a lot of curriculum we want to complete," Fries said. " We didn't want to say let's just do the minimum."
Andrew Benson, president of Smart Schools, an education consultancy in Cincinnati, said the change won't mean a rush to slash school years because students still need to demonstrate a mastery of subjects through standardized tests.
"I think as long as you're tight on outcomes, it really doesn't matter," he said.
Benson sees the change as a step toward focusing less on time sitting in class and more on what students are getting out of school.
"Eventually, you want to get to a system where you're just caring about outcomes and not prescribing inputs," he said. "Not all kids learn at the same pace the same way. You'd want to have a greater flexibility on how you deliver education coupled with a very clear and rigorous assessment of outcomes."
Ann Margolis, president of Sycamore Junior High School PTO, said her school was happy to comply with the new mandate.
"From what I understand, Sycamore has the equivalent of 16 extra days over what the minimum number of hour requirements are, so we're already ahead of the game," she said. "I like to know that my district is thinking about what's best for our children."