Written by Wayne Oppito
It appears that this winter has become a “winter of our discontent” with regards to inclement weather. Once every decade or so, we in New Jersey feel the wrath of the snow and ice gods. To that extent, this memorandum addresses the 180 day minimum requirement for the school year.
In order to be eligible for state aid, schools must be open for at least 180 days. With the records snowfall during this winter, many school districts have exhausted the number of snow days built into the calendar and now must find ways to make-up those days.
Department of Education regulations set forth that a day in session shall be a day on which the schools are open and students are under the guidance and direction of a teacher engaged in the teaching process. A school day shall consist of not less than four hours of actual school work, except in kindergarten where one continuous session of 2 ½ hours may be considered a full day. Days on which school is closed for such reasons as holidays, teachers in-service and inclement weather shall not be considered as days in session.
The Department of Education has indicated in the past that the 180 day minimum will not be waived and that local school districts are required to meet the requirement by June 30, the statutory end of the school year.
Of greater importance to districts with high schools is that high school graduation may not be scheduled before the completion of the 180th day. In 1994, the Department of Education affirmed a 1983 opinion from the Attorney General’s office to the then Assistant Commissioner. The decision was that elementary school “graduation” exercises are essentially promotional exercises. As such, although elementary schools are required to hold a minimum of 180 days of instruction, graduation exercises may be discretionarily scheduled at an appropriate time towards the end of the school year “since such exercises are merely symbolic of promotion to further education” rather than the culmination of all requirements for graduation. The Department of Education has reiterated that the preference is that such ceremonies occur after completion of 180 days.
Conversely, the Department of Education has reasoned that high schools are distinguishable from elementary schools because a graduation ceremony for seniors is the culmination of a successful career in public education. Secondary schools may only schedule graduation ceremonies after the completion of 180 instructional days because such ceremonies are not merely symbolic, but represent official recognition of the end of a school career.
The following are the previous guidelines that the Department of Education has given to schools in order to meet the 180 day requirement:
- All revised calendars must be approved by the county office after adoption by the local board of education. However, there is a PERC decision which holds that the impact of the calendar change on the staff is negotiable. Therefore, although the board of education has a right to add days during the Spring vacation period, staff has a right to negotiate financial compensation for lost vacation deposits or changes in travel plans.
- Extend the school year to utilize all days through June 30, including days previously designated as closed for students.
- School districts may request permission of the county superintendents to conduct school on Saturday. There is no legal restriction that prohibits the use of Saturday. However, attendance problems and religious conflicts should be anticipated. Remember that four hours of instructional time must be schedule for a Saturday to count as a day.
- Teachers by state law may not be compelled to teach on legal holidays. The cooperation of the staff will be necessary in order to schedule schools on those days.
- Use of Sunday as an instructional day will not be approved since there are legal questions concerning compelling teachers and students to attend.
- School districts may request a separate instructional day or days for seniors due to problems with rescheduling graduation ceremonies.
- School districts will not receive approval to conduct two 4 hour sessions on the same day for the purpose of attaining two instructional days in one day. However, permission may be granted to conduct two 2 ½ hour kindergarten sessions on the same day which shall count as two instructional days.
If a school district has utilized every possible day through June 30 and is still short of the 180 day minimum, it may then request a waiver from the Department of Education. The Department of Education will closely scrutinize the school calendar to ensure that all available days have been utilized and the above guidelines were followed before it would consider granting a waiver.