As principal of St. Therese School in Northeast Portland, Joy Hunt excels at jumping from one role to the next — one moment she’s comforting a kindergartner with a scraped knee, the next she’s navigating piles of paperwork. But nothing prepared her for this winter.
“I was part-snow-shoveler, part-weatherwoman,” laughed Hunt.
The principal joins administrators around the archdiocese navigating the startling snowfalls this winter and deciding how to make up lost instructional time. Snowstorms gave the region a white Advent in early December, and about a foot blanketed Portland in the most recent storm. The Jan. 10-11 snowstorm was the biggest the city has seen in about 20 years, according to the National Weather Service.
Ploughing through days
The Oregon Department of Education requires 900 hours of instruction each academic year for elementary school students and 990 for high schoolers. Catholic schools in the state surpass both numbers.
The archdiocese, not subject to the state’s numbers, requires 179 instructional days and daily hours depending on grade level. Seven hours daily are mandated for high schoolers, for example, or a total of 1,253 hours. The two private elementary schools and seven private high schools set their own calendar parameters.
Snow days have chipped away at these hours. Holy Cross Brother William Dygert, superintendent of Portland archdiocesan schools, said most schools have lost between four and nine days. Portland schools were on the high end, with St. Mary’s Academy and De La Salle closing their doors for nine days and St. Therese canceling classes for a whopping 10. In Eugene, O’Hara School lost six instructional days; Salem’s Blanchet High School lost four.
Ice was a bigger problem than snow at O’Hara, said Principal Tammy Conway, adding they typically lose just one or two days due to weather-related events.
“I can’t remember another year like this one,” she said in a sentiment echoed by Oregonians across the region.
For some schools, deciding when to cancel classes is straightforward: They follow the local school district. Such is the case for Blanchet, which adheres to Salem-Keizer.
Closures begin with “a chain of events that start at 5 a.m.,” said Tony Guevara, president of the high school. The district’s director of transportation connects with Blanchet’s counterpart to relay a closure, and the message then is sent to parents via social media and voicemail.
Hunt at St. Therese has the nerve-wracking responsibility of making the call herself, with the support of the pastor, Father Stephen Geer. “I’d get up at 4:50 a.m. and watch three different news stations, trying to figure out the weather,” said Hunt, who must consider students coming from 13 different districts.
It can be a thankless job deciding whether or not to close a school, Hunt said. Usually some parents think you made the wrong call.
This year was different. “Everyone was sympathetic,” said Hunt.
In a statement no doubt reflecting the thoughts of all Catholic school administrators, St. Mary’s Principal Kelli Clark said that even if classes are held, “safety is always first.”
“We encourage families to assess their own situation and act accordingly,” she said.
Schools will use numerous approaches to make up for lost instructional time. Brother Dygert sent a memo to all Catholic schools Jan. 19 with make-up parameters for archdiocesan schools. Private Catholic schools establish their own policies, but the memo serves as a guideline.
The standard archdiocesan academic calendar usually includes two days as automatically forgiven for unforeseen circumstances. This year, a total of four will be forgiven. In addition, schools can make up the additional days by holding classes on a teacher in-service day, Presidents Day and Memorial Day, a portion of spring break, or on Good Friday. Brother Dygert notes that if the Good Friday option is selected, schools must host appropriate services. Schools may also add days to the school year. Any additional days missed during the remainder of the year need to be made up using the parameters given in the memo.
In their efforts to recoup days and keep young minds active, a number of schools turned to technology. Some St. Therese students received email assignments from teachers, and several high schools, including St. Mary’s, La Salle in Milwaukie and Jesuit in Portland, used digital learning to bank remote school days. La Salle students swapped snowballs for iPads for all but one day the week of the storm — taking an online English quiz and engaging in an online discussion for an economics class.
“We have all of these amazing digital tools at our fingertips and already integrated into our classes, why not leverage them in this way?” said La Salle Principal Andrew Kuffner.
“Leveraging the benefit of mobile devices to mitigate the impact of weather” has been a gift in this snowy winter, added Clark.
Semester exams also were affected by the recent storm. Some schools pushed them back a week, such as De La Salle, and St. Andrew Nativity School in Northeast Portland rescheduled them for early February. Jesuit decided to make semester exams optional.
While students and teachers alike might have enjoyed a few snow days and the extra sleep, book-reading and movie-watching they afford, most had cabin fever and were ready step back into classrooms.
“Everyone seemed thrilled to be back, almost like the first day back after summer,” said De La Salle Principal Tim Joy. “We are aware, of course,” he added, “that winter is still snarling out there.”