BY MICHAEL WALTON
TRAVERSE CITY — Harsh winter weather is starting to threaten the summer vacations of public school students throughout the region.
Roughly 15 public districts and private institutions canceled classes yesterday, marking the fifth or sixth day of instruction lost to weather this year for many public schools.
Districts can cancel up to six days of instruction each year before they are required to schedule make-up days. Districts with more than six days of canceled class can ask the Michigan Department of Education to waive additional instruction requirements. Some local officials are already preparing to pursue exemptions with snow season only about half over.
"Needless to say, we will be asking for a waiver," Kingsley Area Schools Superintendent Keith Smith said.
Yesterday marked the fifth closure for Kingsley schools, while it was the sixth closure for Buckley Community Schools.
Buckley Superintendent Rick Heitmeyer said districts don't like to delay summer vacation, but they often don't have a choice.
"The bottom line is we are going to keep the kids and the parents and the families as safe as possible," Heitmeyer said, adding, "We're still going to err on the side of caution because that's what you have to do."
The prospect of added school days in June was on at least one teacher's mind yesterday.
Michael Libby, a special education teacher at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, spent the afternoon sledding with his children Jack and Ivy, who are in preschool and second grade at The Children's House Montessori school.
Michael Libby said snow days give him a chance to spend the day playing outside with his children.
"I love them," he said of snow days. "I just wish they hadn't come so fast."
Traverse City Area Public Schools officials had canceled 5 and a half days of class through yesterday.
Paul Soma, TCAPS' chief financial officer, said the district follows a strict protocol when deciding whether to hold classes during inclement weather and dangerous driving conditions. To make that determination, six district employees climb into their cars in the middle of night and drive roads throughout the district if bad weather is predicted.
The employees include two from the district's operations staff and four from the transportation staff. They report to Soma and TCAPS Transportation Director Christine Thomas-Hill. Soma and Thomas-Hill then decide on a recommendation and forward it to the superintendent for approval.
The decision is not always easy, especially for a large geographic district where weather and road conditions can vary drastically from one area to another, Soma said.
"There is science and art to it," Soma said. "It's imperfect. I love it when all six (employees) say the same thing. It rarely happens in our district."
The TCAPS officials consider road conditions, visibility and future weather forecasts before making a district-wide decision.
Heitmeyer said this year has been abnormal due to the frequency of closings and weather patterns that caused the closings.
"We've had an ice day, a 20-below wind chill day, we've had the whole gamut," Heitmeyer said. "Heck, it was 54 degrees two days ago."