By Dan Russo
DUBUQUE — The mix of wintery weather that has been hitting Iowa in the last several weeks has even Frosty the Snowman reaching for his long johns. Extreme subzero temperatures, freezing rain, brutal winds and snow have caused an unusually high number of cancelations and late starts at Catholic schools, according to principals and administrators. Faith formation programs across the archdiocese have also been affected.
So how have people been coping and what’s the plan to make up instruction time that has been lost?
When it comes to Catholic schools, the good news is that “snow days” are already built into the schedule each year, but with the amount of weather events this winter, there will be some additional adjustments made at many schools. Each Catholic school in the archdiocese is accredited by the Department of Education and so must meet the state’s minimum requirement for instruction time. How this is done is the decision of each individual Catholic school board, according to Superintendent of Schools Kim Hermsen.
“Each school can choose to go by hours or days,” explained Hermsen. “The only one of our 50 schools that goes by days is St. Benedict’s in Decorah. Thus, with other schools going with hours, they are allowed to lengthen school days to get the required 1,080 hours in. This kind of decision, however, is usually made in collaboration with the local public school because they would share transportation.”
The Iowa Department of Education advised educators: “Remember, that SNOW DAYS/HOURS and makeup days/hours are only necessary to get to the minimum amount of instructional time required under Iowa Code section 256.7(19) which is 180 days of instruction or 1,080 hours of instruction. If you have the minimum amount of days or hours, you are not required to make up the time.”
“Our schools always start the year with significantly more than the required 1,080 hours, but when you start to have over two weeks’ worth of snow days, other arrangements need to not only meet the required hours but most importantly to make up for lost instructional time,” said Hermsen.
Beth Globokar, principal of Regis Catholic Middle School in Cedar Rapids reported that her school system has missed eight days in the elementary schools and seven in the secondary schools as of Feb. 11. (Another snowstorm hit the area Feb. 12, causing more closures.)
“This time of year is particularly challenging for our families who have students who struggle with anxiety as the changes in routine often times leads to increased time out of school,” she said. “This time of year is when we see so many of our best and brightest teachers truly shine as they work hard to engage learners, prioritize curriculum, and to be compassionate to students who are struggling. We truly appreciate their flexibility and their ability to ‘just roll with it!’”
Globokar’s school system shifted some professional development days and will make up days in the coming months. She noted that several Catholic daycare centers have done their best to stay open on days when school was closed to allow families to work.
Holy Family Catholic Schools in Dubuque has had nine snow days and nine two-hour late starts or early dismissals (as of Feb. 12), according to Carol Trueg, chief administrator for the system.
“The concentration of days has been unusual,” she said.
Trueg also said the missed days are disruptive for students.
“Everybody is wanting to be in a routine,” she said.
Holy Family has not decided how to make up the time yet and is currently in discussions with the Dubuque Community School District.
At Beckman Catholic High School in Dyersville, Principal Marcel Kielkucki reported that the school missed eight days (as of Feb. 11) along with seven early outs or late starts. The school has already made up one day, but the challenge, he said, is that there may still be more closures.
“What makes this more unique in my opinion is the concentrated nature of these days,” said Kielkucki. “We’ve had a lot of time off in a short period of time. Eight days over the course of the year would be a lot, but having them with a number of delays in the span of two to three weeks makes it more challenging.”
Tony Adams, administrator for the Newman K-12 Catholic school system in Mason City stated that the students had missed seven days (as of Feb. 11), but any make up days would not impact spring break.
“If we add additional days, they will be made up at the end of the year,” he said.
Faith formation programs at the parish level have also been impacted by the “polar vortex.” On Feb. 7, 55 young people were set to receive their first reconciliation at St. Patrick Parish in Cedar Falls. Strong winds and blowing snow posed a challenge, but fortunately all but five were able to make it. Arrangements are being made for those who couldn’t, according to Suzy Luecke, faith formation program manager for the parish.
“They’ll be able to go see Father (Dennis) Colter during the regular Saturday afternoon reconciliation,” she said.
Luecke reported that the parish office was forced to close during certain subzero days and events after regular business hours have also seen some disruption. For example, she is in the process of rescheduling a Bible study for a dozen adults, which was supposed to meet weekly.
“We only met once and had to cancel the next four Tuesdays,” said Luecke.
Hermsen said the last time she remembers a winter like this was 25 years ago when she was a teacher. School was held on two Saturdays to make up time.
A snow blower clears a driveway and sidewalk at the campuses of Holy Family Catholic Schools system’s Wahlert High School and Mazzuchelli Middle School in Dubuque Feb. 12. A snowstorm closed schools in many parts of the archdiocese that day. (Photo by Dan Russo/The Witness)