The First Day of School, Take Two

Now, that was unexpected. The last piece I expected to write twice this year would be the piece about the first day of school. I am still trying to figure out which is more shocking, that JCPS cancelled school or that it happened on the first day of school, an event that is “unprecedented” according to JCPS officials. However, after a strong thunderstorm with winds up to 70 mph on Saturday, new superintendent Donna Hargens made the decision to delay the start of the 2011-12 school year early Sunday afternoon.

In the wake of the decision, the reaction among parents and students has been mixed. While many rejoiced at the cancellation of school, some expressed disbelief that the day would be treated as a snow day and would have to be made up. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a snow day, cancellations are always due to “inclement weather,” which means that any weather event can cause the cancellation of school. The side effect is that any instructional days missed must be made up.

In her rationale for closing school, Donna Hargens cited the large number of power outages in Jefferson County, which included over 40 schools at one point, and the number of power lines and trees down, coupled with non-functioning traffic lights across town would have made it difficult for the 955 buses in Jefferson County to safely and efficiently transport children to their schools. While the number of schools without power dropped to a dozen by nightfall on Sunday, Hargens said the decision had to be made early in order to give families enough time to plan. Additionally, she indicated that due to the power outages, it would be difficult to provide lunches, and with 60 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunches, that is a necessity. She also referred to the educational significance of the first day of school, an idea that many parents and students may not even be able to understand.

As educators, we all have read the book The First Days of School by Harry Wong. We know that the environment that is established from the moment a child walks through the school doors, perhaps even the moment he or she steps onto the school bus, determines the attitude toward learning that will take place the rest of the year. We know that the rules and regulations that are discussed and disseminated on the first day of school are priceless, as this may be the only opportunity to address these issues with students before delving head-first into content that will be the focus of the rest of the school year. We know that every student who misses that first day starts out at a disadvantage, not because the teacher decides that is the case, but because he or she missed the valuable and pertinent information along with the lesson for the day and will start out with an extra day of homework. To imagine an absentee rate of 20-30% because they couldn’t get through their neighborhood because of downed trees and power lines, or even because there has been no power (i.e., hot water) and they did not want to go in for the first day of school without a shower, is unfathomable. It would be disastrous to schools and teachers.
For the general public, it may be easier to write off the first day of school as a waste of time; students may even tell their parents, “we didn’t do anything;” but to start the school year under this type of stress would have been especially tough on the families who may not have been able to make it.

If you are looking around your neighborhood thinking that the day off was just a waste of time, take a drive around town and try to put yourself into the perspective of those without power and with major damage to clean up and see if your view remains the same. Better yet, put yourself into the perspective of the new superintendent or Mike Mulheirn, JCPS executive director of facilities and transportation. Imagine the number of complaints from parents of the over 66,000 students who will be transported on their 955 buses when their kids spend over two hours on the bus trying to navigate their way through damage. And, if your biggest complaint in this is that the school day will be tacked on to the end of the year, get out and enjoy the day. It looks a lot like May 29 out there right now.

The reality is no matter what decision was made regarding canceling school, there would have been backlash. There always is. Here’s to the new start of the school year on August 16th!