Calendar scrambled for St. Louis area schools after snow and new state law

ST. LOUIS — Just as a new state law forced school districts across Missouri to upend their 2020-2021 calendars, a snowstorm blew through to derail this year’s schedule.

Under the law signed in July by Gov. Mike Parson, public schools cannot start their fall semester more than 14 calendar days before the first Monday in September starting in 2020. The move was opposed by school leaders but pushed by the tourism industry, which covets the extra vacation days in August.

Most districts have had to adjust their future calendars for the later start dates, which for many has meant pushing semester exams to January after the winter break.

Then a snowstorm hit in the last week of classes before winter break, in what school officials said was an unprecedented disruption to the final exam schedule. Most schools closed on Monday and Tuesday, cutting short the review sessions and class time preparation for semester exams for middle and high school students.

School districts in Jefferson County shut down Wednesday as well, as many rural roads were still impassable. Students in Festus schools were told they could pick up study materials from their lockers on Wednesday, although classes were not in session, to cram for tests on Thursday and Friday. The Northwest R-1 district in House Springs pushed all its exams ahead to January, after one review day upon returning from winter break.

The shortened week means that students in several other districts, including St. Louis Public Schools, will have to take four exams in a day instead of two or three to finish up before vacation starts. Some districts, including Maplewood Richmond Heights, extended their half-day testing schedule to full days to fit in the exams for all classes.

Riverview Gardens, Parkway North and Parkway South high schools decided instead to push one class period’s final to January, in a preview of next year’s schedule.

“We made the adjustment to put our students in the best position to succeed,” said Anthony Kiekow, spokesman for Riverview Gardens School District. “Our high school staff has done a great job preparing our students for finals. We’re confident that students will adjust to the new schedule and perform well on the exams.”

At least six districts — Festus, Fort Zumwalt, Francis Howell, Wentzville, Lincoln County and Warren County — announced that this week’s final exams would not count toward a student’s course grade unless it improved their standing. Other districts were also expected to follow that plan, but decided against announcing it to students beforehand.

The decision was met with debate on social media as some parents and students were grateful while others thought it gave students a free pass to skip out on studying for exams.

Joe Sutton, principal at Fort Zumwalt North High, cautioned students against taking it easy on their finals.

“Come to school (Wednesday) prepared to do your best on your finals. Anything less would be disrespectful of the opportunity you’ve been given,” Sutton wrote on Twitter.

School calendars are typically set two to three years in advance, requiring most districts to make revisions to future schedules. Districts spent the fall collecting surveys and holding meetings to discuss their options for 2020-2021 and beyond.

Both the state law and the snowstorm have frustrated school leaders who feel a loss of control over the calendar. Finishing up the fall semester before winter break and the spring semester before Memorial Day has been the preferred school calendar for decades, superintendents said.

“It’s nice to wrap up the first semester before the break, go home and relax and not worry about coming back to exams,” said Keith Marty, superintendent of Parkway School District. Plus, he added, “students learn better in August than they do in June.”

Parkway’s new calendar starting in 2020 will extend the fall semester into January in order to have balanced semesters of 90 days each. The last day of school in 2021 will be June 3, in what Marty said was the best option out of difficult choices.

At least two districts, Webster Groves and Valley Park, decided to lengthen the school day by 20 to 30 minutes instead of pushing semester exams to January or extending the year into June. In Webster Groves, parent-teacher conferences will take place before the first day of school, to avoid losing class time during the semester.

“We know we’re not going to make everybody happy,” said Sandy Wiley Skinner, Webster Groves’ assistant superintendent of human resources. “Having that law ties our hands.”