NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

January 29, 2013

When is a two-hour delay not two hours?

Amesbury City Notebook
Mac Cerullo

---- — Last Monday night, the city called in a two-hour snow delay for school in anticipation of 6 to 9 inches of snow the next morning. The big snowstorm never happened, but 161 Amesbury High School students showed up late anyway, thinking that classes began at 10 a.m. when the school was expecting them at 9:30 a.m.

Let that sink in for a second. Out of the 628 students who attend Amesbury High School, exactly a quarter of the entire student body — the equivalent of an entire grade — showed up late because of what? A miscommunication? A non-communication? How exactly do you explain this?

Perhaps, a good place to start would be to answer the question posed by a reader who commented on The Daily News website last week: What exactly is so confusing about a two-hour delay?

“You simply have to be at school or at the bus stop exactly two hours later from normal,” the commenter said. “Not rocket science, sorry.”

You’d think, right? That would be the most sensible situation, but the truth is that showing up exactly two hours later than normal is precisely how 161 students showed up late last week.

How can that be? Let me explain.

On a normal day of school at AHS, A-Block begins at 7:30 a.m., which is when band and chorus meets and everyone else goes to their homeroom. Students who are not in band or chorus often don’t arrive at school until closer to 7:57, which is when the bell rings and first period starts.

This is where things get confusing. Amesbury Middle School and the elementary schools don’t have an equivalent to A-Block, and at those schools everyone shows up for their first class at the same time. Therefore, a two-hour delay is simple — you show up two hours later than normal and go from there.

Not so at Amesbury High School. Despite the fact that a large portion of the student body considers 8 a.m. to be the start of their school day, the school officially lists 7:30 a.m. as its start time because of A-Block and uses that as its snow delay benchmark. AHS also eliminates A-Block on snow-delayed days, so it expects everybody to be at school at 9:30 a.m. for the start of first period.

But if you’re a freshman, or a student who hasn’t had a snow delay since middle school like a sizable portion of the high school’s student body, then there’s a good chance you wouldn’t know that, and your reasonable assumption would probably be that a delayed start would mean the bell ringing at 10 a.m.

Principal Roy Hamond speculated as much last week, pointing to the fact that last year there was hardly any snow and the year before there was so much that school was usually canceled outright.

That being said, the school’s snow delay policy is in the student handbook, and Hamond has reminded parents of the policy recently in his monthly newsletter. So it’s not like the school hasn’t attempted to get the word out.

Regardless, the message didn’t get through, and it will be up to Hamond and Superintendent Michele Robinson to make sure adjustments are made so something like this doesn’t happen again. The reality is the snow delay policy contradicts common sense practice, so the school will have to go the extra mile to make sure everyone is on the same page.

The most sensible solution on paper would be to change the school’s snow delay policy so a two-hour delay actually means a two-hour delay. By that I mean have class start at 10 a.m., two hours after normal.

The problem with this plan, as it turns out, is state regulations won’t allow that to happen. Since Amesbury High School lists 7:30 a.m. as its official start time across the board, there’s no way to finagle around that without the school falling out of compliance with the number of hours students are required to be in school by the state.

Hamond and Robinson got into more detail about other state requirements they have to meet, but the bottom line is the snow delay policy is the way it is for a reason, and changing it won’t be feasible without making a whole bunch of other radical schedule changes that nobody will like either.

That being the case, the school needs to enhance its communication efforts and figure out a way to reach all of the students and parents in a way that isn’t going to be ignored or overlooked, particularly by those who might not know better from past experience.

Besides consistent reminders over the PA system before and after school, the best way to do that is by specifically pointing out that class will start at 9:30 a.m. when making the snow delay announcement.

Something simple like: “There will be a two-hour delay for school opening tomorrow due to inclement weather. Amesbury High School students, be advised that first period will begin at 9:30 a.m. and there will be no A-Block.” It’s short, quick and doesn’t leave any room for misinterpretation.

If the student or parent just hears “two-hour delay” and hangs up the phone, that’s on them. At least in this scenario the school can’t be accused of not using every tool at its disposal to ensure that every student or parent knows when school is going to start.

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One more quick school note: The Amesbury High School Class of 2014 will be holding its third annual Soup Night on Thursday, Feb. 7. The purpose of the event is to raise money for upcoming class events and to support the students in general.

The event will run from 4:30 to 7 p.m. in the school cafeteria and tickets cost $5. Entertainment will be provided throughout the night and family and friends are welcome.

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The following meetings are scheduled this week and are open to the public:

Wednesday

Community Development Block Grant meeting, 6:30 p.m., City Hall Auditorium.

Energy Task Force meeting, 6:30 p.m., Ordway Building, School Street.

Thursday

Retirement Board meeting, 1:30 p.m., 37 Millyard Park.

Monday

Conservation Commission meeting, 6:30 p.m., City Hall Auditorium.

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Mac Cerullo covers Amesbury for The Daily News. He can be reached at 978-462-6666, ext. 3238 or by email at mcerullo@newburyportnews.com. Follow Mac on Twitter at @MacCerullo.