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Snow forecast prompts debate over Friday school closings

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By Michael Birnbaum and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 2010; 5:18 PM

Anxious area school districts were glancing between their calendars and the weather forecast Thursday afternoon, and Fairfax County became the first to cave, canceling school Friday, and, by extension, a planned holiday in April. It will be the fifth snow day Fairfax has taken this school year, and the second this week.

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Friday's impending snow, which is currently forecast to hit between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, is an even bigger question. In both Maryland and Virginia, schools need to be in session for at least three hours to avoid tallying a snow day.

(For a complete, continuously updated list of snow-related closures, delays and early dismissals, please click here or visit our Education page.)

In Fairfax, county schools will already be in session on Presidents' Day to make up a day, and if they are closed more days beyond Friday they'll have to extend the school year in June, said Mary Shaw, a spokeswoman for the schools. If more than 10 snow days are needed in the academic year -- something Shaw said happened once in the past decade -- the school system will have to petition the state to allow fewer than 180 days of school, or come up with creative ways to make up the time.

Options include convening class on a Saturday, something the Stafford County schools did a few years ago to make up for snow days, said Valerie Cottongim, a spokeswoman for the school system.

In Maryland, many school systems have already taken four snow days this year -- the maximum many have built into their schedule.

In Montgomery County, which has used all four of its snow days, educators will extend the school year if more snow days are needed, said schools spokesman Dana Tofig. Officials are watching Friday's forecast, he said, and will try to figure out whether to take the day off, take a half-day or just barrel through.

"We wouldn't have school if we didn't think that we could have kids long enough for it to be a day of school," he said.

Prince George's County has one day left, after which officials would extend the school year, said Tanzi West, a spokeswoman for the schools.

D.C. schools haven't used any snow days thus far -- they got lucky because the December snowstorm hit the day after they had dismissed for winter break. Two snow days are built into the schedule, said spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway.

In Anne Arundel County, the schools have already used their four snow days and officials have put in a request to the state to waive two of those days, which they protest were done under a state of emergency in December, said Maneka S. Monk, a spokeswoman for the school system.

That might be tough, said William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.

"We take very seriously the 180-day school requirement," he said. "I don't think there's anybody out there who'd suggest that American kids go to school for too many days."

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