‘Flex days’ may not fly for all school districts

The state’s new option of using Flexible Instruction Days instead of snow days looks good on paper.

But in practice, it would not be so easy to educate children while allowing them to stay home during severe winter weather, Altoona Area school officials said.

“It’s the new shiny thing from the Pennsylvania Department of Education without a way to put it in action,” school district solicitor Carl Beard said Monday at an Altoona Area School Board meeting.

School districts have a few weeks left to apply for the department’s flexible instruction days, a new option that passed unanimously through the General Assembly this summer.

The problem is, school officials are finding there’s a lot more required of school districts than just telling students to log on and do a take-home assignment.

“Looking at the diversity of programs in Altoona, we have multi-handicapped kids; we have kids with autism and verbal-behavioral disabilities; we have life skills children. How will you provide those one-on-one staff members to them as the special education law says you have to do?” Beard asked.

“If you don’t provide the services, you could open yourselves legal claims,” Beard said. “I don’t know how you are going to get around all those loops. Are you going to pay certain employees on that day and not others?”

Altoona Area School District students start school on Monday.

Superintendent Charles Prijatelj acknowledged that the school board wanted to apply for flexible instructional days.

“We can fill out the application, but we have to investigate whether we can carry it without incurring a lot of additional, exorbitant costs,” Prijatelj said. “I know the board wanted to do this, especially after last year’s severe snows. It just might not be feasible for the district at this time.”

Prijatelj said other districts are facing the same obstacles.

“We just had a meeting of superintendents. Everyone is in the same boat,” he said.

Altoona has many students who, by law, must be provided extended services during a school day.

Districts may need to send nurses to houses or a special education aide during flexible instructional days.

“It’s not as cut and dry as saying ‘We are going to assign work and that’s it.’ There are medical services we are required to provide by law. There are schools in York County that actually delivered lunches to children in the federal free and reduced lunch program. Our student population is 62 percent free and reduced lunch; that means we would be sending 4,000 lunches home.”

Board member Rick Hoover also foresaw issues with sending staff out during severe storms.

“Sending out people in the snow to houses — it sounds like a mess, Hoover said.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education regulations are “oppressive — is that a good word?” Prijatelj asked.

“Exhaustive,” Assistant Su­perintendent Brad Hatch suggested.