Cancellation of the New Jersey Education Association conference in Atlantic City is giving school districts the chance to stay open Nov. 8 and 9 and get two storm makeup days they had not anticipated.
Gov. Chris Christie urged teachers to voluntarily be back in the classroom next week, saying these are “extraordinary circumstances” and students have missed too many days already.
He told a news conference in Trenton that he prefers not to have to invoke emergency powers and order teachers back to class. But he also said he “would not hesitate to do what needed to be done to help our children get the education they need.”
A survey of area school districts showed not all were planning to take advantage of the potential makeup days — but the decisions were made before Christie spoke on the topic.
One district that does plan to stay open is Northfield, which already got a late start in September because of mold in the school. Superintendent Janice Fipp said she met with representatives of the teachers union, which supports staying open. A special school board meeting is set for today to get board approval.
School calendars are set by local boards of education, which must follow the state law that mandates school be in session for 180 days. State law does not require schools to close for the NJEA convention, but they must allow teachers to attend. Typically most districts close rather than having to hire substitute teachers.
Most school calendars build in one or two “snow days,” but with the current weather patterns there are concerns about having enough days to complete a full school year by June 30. In past years districts have even held school on Saturdays to meet the deadline.
Still, opening is not as easy as it appears. Many families and school staff make vacation plans for the long weekend, especially if the school will also be closed for Election Day on Tuesday.
Ventnor and Long Beach Island had already planned to close for the entire week of Nov. 5-9, so students there will get two full weeks off from school.
Galloway Township polled staff to see if people were available, and whether they would have the resources such as lunches, and had opted to remain closed.
Hamilton Township and Vineland had also planned to remain closed. Officials in several other districts said they would likely make the decision today.
Michelle Cappelluti, superintendent in Hamilton Township, said the decision was made after reviewing staff plans and bus driver availability. She said she will instead recommend taking three days from the spring break.
Vineland Superintendent Mary Gruccio encouraged staff to consider volunteering in the storm cleanup and recovery effort.
Brigantine Superintendent Robert Previti said he will check on staff and bus driver availability, but his strong inclination was to stay open.
“The whole point of closing those two days is because of the convention,” he said. “If there is no convention, I’d prefer to stay open.”
Avalon and Stone Harbor will stay open Thursday and Friday, and will also have school Wednesday, a planned teacher in-service day, Superintendent Stacey Tracy said.
New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman Frank Belluscio said some districts statewide may stay closed because of storm-related issues.
“There are districts, especially in the north, that still don’t know when their power will come back on, and how badly their schools have been affected by the storm,” Belluscio said. “We are very concerned about the condition of some schools and how long they will have to be closed. If they have extended closures, those districts will have to be very creative with their scheduling.”
Most schools in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and southern Ocean counties did open Thursday, though some along the coast are closed until at least Monday. Schools in the Wildwoods and Cape May City, which had been evacuated, did open Thursday, and school officials there were pleased with the attendance rate of both staff and students, which they said approached 90 percent.
“Everyone really seems happy to be back,” said John Kummings, principal of the Glenwood Avenue School in Wildwood.
Wildwood has a very high percentage of low-income students. Kummings said district officials wanted to get schools open quickly so students would have meals and a warm, safe place to be during the day in case their homes were damaged. School staff is also taking an inventory to see if any families need extra assistance because of the storm.
Cape May City school Superintendent Victoria Zelenak said the Coast Guard families returned Wednesday, and the storm there was much less severe than anticipated. She said they were definitely thinking about staying open on the convention days next week, and have the support of the teachers union, but will coordinate with Lower Cape May Regional so they are consistent through all the grades.
“We still don’t know what the winter might bring,” Zelenak said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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