Unscheduled school days for some South Jersey students

Posted: November 09, 2012

Traditionally, the second week of November - election week - marks a break in New Jersey's public school education schedule.

By state law, the schools close on the Thursday and Friday following Election Day for the annual New Jersey Education Association convention in Atlantic City. The convention, one of Atlantic City's largest, usually brings about 30,000 delegates, teachers, and support staffers to the Shore for two days.

Some districts also have Veterans Day off, making it a four-day weekend; some schedule the whole week off for students.

This year, those plans ran off the tracks. With Hurricane Sandy wreaking havoc at the Shore, the state education association canceled the convention for the first time in more than a century.

It seemed to some like a natural fit to hold school Thursday and Friday to make up for days lost because of the storm. All New Jersey schools must be open for at least 180 days, so weather days must be made up somehow.

But while a number of schools in South Jersey opened Thursday, many did not.

In Burlington County, 27 of 41 districts were scheduled to open both Thursday and Friday. Among them: Mount Laurel, Evesham, and Lenape Regional.

In Camden County, the number was much lower: Just seven of 36 districts planned to hold school both days, Camden, Cherry Hill, and Pennsauken among them. A fourth, Haddon Township, opened only on Thursday.

In Gloucester County, only three of 28 districts - Glassboro, Wenonah, and Clayton - were open; Clayton had a half-day Thursday and will have no school Friday.

Statewide, 354 of 585 districts held classes Thursday, according to the Department of Education.

District administrators offered many reasons for staying closed, most of which boiled down to this: Many parents and teachers already had made plans for those days, and it would have been too disruptive to decide at the last minute to stay open.

In Collingswood, which canceled school for two days because of the storm, Superintendent Scott Oswald said, "I would rather schedule time in school when we can ensure we will have most of our teachers and most of our kids here."

He added: "We would not get the highest quality of education if we went ahead" and opened schools Thursday and Friday.

The district, he said, schedules makeup days for weather events in its annual calendar; it also has 183 school days, three more than required. Attendance for election week was already lower than usual because families use the time for everything from college visits by seniors to trips to Walt Disney World, Oswald said.

That wasn't the view of Cherry Hill Superintendent Maureen Reusche, who decided to schedule classes.

"It was not an easy decision to make. I knew I was going to get a lot who thought it was a great idea and a lot who thought it was not a good idea," she said. Still, Reusche added, "the choice was making the days up now or in June. Nobody likes to have extra days then. How productive is that?"

Reusche said that because of some absences, the two days would be used for "review, enrichment, reinforcement," with no tests or big new assignments. Still, she said Thursday, attendance was about 90 percent, compared with an average of about 96 percent.

Teachers who wanted to be off Thursday and Friday, the superintendent said, had to show that they had nonrefundable travel plans or medical appointments that could not be canceled, and even then were required to take personal days. About 90 percent of teachers showed up for school, she said.

In the Mount Laurel district, said communications director Marie Reynolds, it was an easy decision: "The reason for having those two days off no longer existed. We had no valid reason to close." Attendance was somewhat lower than usual but still fairly high, she said.

In Glassboro, said district spokeswoman Jody Rettig, Superintendent Mark Silverstein conducted a survey of staff and parents before deciding to open the schools. Attendance ranged from 90 percent to 94 percent, she said.

In the Wenonah School District, enrollment 251, about 90 percent of students showed up, said school head Frank Vogel. Some teachers, he said, canceled doctor's appointments to come in. "They don't like being out when school is in," he said. "I was quite impressed."

Contact Dan Hardy at 856-779-3858 or dhardy@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @DanInq.

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