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A harsh winter: Are students tired of snow days?

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School's out in New Ulm, Minn.
Students headed for the buses at Jefferson Elementary School after classes were canceled because of deteriorating weather conditions in April 2013 in New Ulm, Minn.
The Journal of New Ulm, Steve Muscatello | AP Photo 2013

Parts of Minnesota topped February snowfall records Wednesday and many of the state's 2,066 public schools canceled classes. But this was just one in a long line of cancellations since the start of January.

Carissa Keister, community engagement manager for Stillwater Public Schools, said she's never seen anything like this.

"I've been doing this job for 20 years in different districts and I don't recall ever having a winter ... where we've had so many snow days," she said.

Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, has experience that goes back twice as far.

"I've been involved in education 42 years," he said. "And this is the first time I've ever seen anything of this magnitude."

Stillwater in southeastern Minnesota has had to cancel school for seven days and start classes late an additional day because of winter weather. School officials decided to hold a makeup school day last Monday — Presidents Day — but they're still looking at adding more two more days to their calendar.

Keister said the situation has gotten so bad that students in the district are starting to complain about the missed days.

"It's amazing," she said. "I have never thought I would say that, but yes, we have been getting messages from our kids of 'please, don't close schools' because it's making it really challenging for them to keep up with their coursework. They feel like they're falling behind, and that can be stressful for some of them as well."

Teachers don't like the missed days either. Keister said it's already hard enough for them to fit everything into the school year — and canceled classes only increase the pressure. 

Hastings is another public school district that had to hold classes on Presidents Day. Tim Collins, Hastings Public Schools superintendent, said the district typically has to miss one day per year because of winter weather. The most he can remember ever missing is four days.

But this year? Hastings has had to cancel eight days of school. 

And Hastings is not alone. Amoroso, of the Association of School Administrators, said he's been talking to school officials across the state, trying to understand how snow and cold weather are affecting their ability to meet state requirements for instructional time. Many districts — including Stillwater — are already realizing they won't meet state requirements.

Minnesota law calls for 165 days of instruction each year for public school students in grades one through 11. Schools that don't meet the threshold don't face financial penalties, but funding problems can arise for some.

"There is a consequence that can come up financially for districts if they don't hit the minimum number of hours," he said. "If you have districts that have summer programs, if you have districts that have other extended day programs — in order for those programs to be funded at the full level — you must have met the appropriate number of hours throughout the year."

Amoroso said he's been talking to lawmakers and the state Department of Education about legislation that would provide relief to districts. But any change to a state statute would have to be passed by the Minnesota Legislature. In the meantime, schools are scrambling to rework their calendars.

And schools aren't the only ones struggling with the effects of winter. Other companies that work with Minnesota schools are also affected. 

Minnesota Central School Bus Company contracts with Stillwater Public Schools to transport students. And when snowstorms blow in, bus drivers are either out of work from canceled classes or trying to keep their students safe on snowy, slippery roads.

Rita Mortensen, contract manager for the company, said bus companies nationwide are having a difficult time finding and retaining employees. Having snow days and school cancellations is making it that much harder to keep good employees.

"Driving in snow conditions is very scary for anybody," she said. "And to drive a 15-ton vehicle with the most precious cargo in the world definitely takes a professional driver to do that. And so, yes, it is a struggle to keep good employees because they do need to go and get full-time work."

Minnesota is in for yet another two rounds of snow this weekend — with one storm predicted for Friday and another possible on Saturday.