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On top of Hurricane Sandy’s immediate devastation throughout the state, public schools and their students could feel the storm’s disruption well into next year.

Hurricane Sandy New Jersey

Schools were reopening today in many parts of the state, state officials said, but hundreds of districts remained closed for a fifth straight day and maybe into next week as power was slow to be restored in vast swaths of New Jersey.

That left school officials grappling with how to make up days on a calendar that had only just begun, with the state’s 180-day requirement unlikely to budge, if history is any indication.

In 1995, districts saw snow days pile up into the teens, but the state did not waive the 180-day statutory mandate and instead required districts to make up the days elsewhere, including shortening winter, spring or summer breaks.

State officials yesterday said any such decisions would be premature, but others said they expected districts would need to make up the days as best they can. Most have two or three snow days already built in, but any days on top of that would come out of the existing calendar.

“All I’m saying, don’t count on (the 180 days being waived),” said Lawrence Feinsod, executive director of the New Jersey School Boards Association and a former executive county superintendent in Essex County.

”I’m sure the commissioner will review it on a case by case basis,” he said, adding some schools could be closed for weeks. “But it will only be as a last resort after the districts look at making up the days on weekends and vacations.”

Districts won some unexpected breathing room when the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, announced yesterday the cancellation of its annual convention in Atlantic City next Thursday and Friday.
With Atlantic City among the places hit hardest by the hurricane, the union said the decision was not difficult to both spare the city and its own members from travel and logistical challenges that are hefty under even the best of circumstances. Advertised as the largest teacher convention in the country, this is the first such cancellation in the union’s 158-year history.

“People can’t even get into the city,” said Vince Giordano, the NJEA’s executive director. “We had to make a decision taking into consideration all of it, the vendors, hotels, travel.”

“We just didn’t want the convention to sit in the middle of all this chaos,” he said. “We wanted to do the right thing by everyone.”

Gov. Chris Christie and his education commissioner, Chris Cerf, yesterday encouraged districts to take advantage of the convention’s cancellation and use the two days to make up the days lost to the hurricane. Schools are usually closed for the convention, by state law.

“Returning our students to the classroom is a critical priority,” Cerf said in a statement. “In light of the cancellation of the convention, I strongly urge districts and teachers to work together to hold classes next week to ensure our students do not lose any additional instructional time.”

In each case, it would require agreement between the districts and the local teachers union to reopen, and Giordano said the state union was leaving for each local to decide.

“Let them work it out on the local level,” Giordano said. “We’re asking each of them to work out what will be the best situation for each district.”

Schools are also historically closed on Election Day, but some districts have already planned to open next Tuesday as well.

In Essex County, South Orange-Maplewood school officials hope to be open all five days next week, including the two days previously saved for NJEA convention. That’s if everything goes as planned.

“I have had very productive conversations with the local union president,” said Superintendent Brian Osborne. “It was she who suggested we open on Thursday and Friday.”

Still, he said there are no guarantees, with several of his buildings still without power and the electrical lines still downed throughout his district, making walking routes hazardous. “We’re fully reliant on PSE&G at this point,” he said.

Echoing other superintendents, Osborne said it wasn’t just about making up lost days. “It’s about continuity of instruction and all the lost learning time,” he said. “November is already a tough month for that.”

This story originally appeared on the New Jersey Spotlight.

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