This winter's severe weather has stretched school calendars to the limit.
With six snow days used, Hamilton County has almost depleted its seven built-in snow days. Catoosa County will look to add a few minutes to the school day to bank more instruction time. Dalton's high schools will extend some class times to meet state guidelines and schools in Cherokee County, N.C., are eyeing Saturday school to make up lost days.
And for every day that schools cancel classes because of bad weather, teachers will have to work double time to catch kids up in time for end-of-the-year standardized tests. Some of the most important state tests in Tennessee are scheduled for April.
So far, Hamilton County students have missed more than a week of school because of threatened or actual snow -- more than three days in late January and three days so far this week.
The decision to cancel school is almost always about safety, but teachers say the loss of instruction time comes at an academic cost. Technology could one day help bridge the gap of lost class time, but so far it's being used only sporadically. So teachers say once the snow has melted and kids report back to school, they'll be flexible but work to squeeze in all the concepts they must cover by test time.
"Our test date won't change," said Sandy Bradley, an instructional coach at Dade County Schools. "Teachers know that they need to teach all the standards before that time comes."
Bradley works with math teachers on curriculum, planning and pacing. She said teachers began adjusting their teaching plans Monday, before officials started dismissing schools for Tuesday.
"It just makes them even more aware of every single thing they're doing and making every second count," she said.
Teachers say they can't just cut out the fluff, because there isn't much left. They have complex curriculum maps that help them to hit dozens of state standards before testing season. So any time lost, whether from a student absence or a snow day, is critical.
"Here we always have a sense of urgency, whether it's regular student attendance or school closing days," said Saunya Goss, principal at Battle Academy for Teaching and Learning. "We feel that five minutes as well as a day or three days matter."
It seems intuitive that missing school for snow could hamper student learning -- you can't learn if you're not in school. But so far, research findings on snow days are mixed.
The quarterly journal Education Next recently published research from Dave E. Marcotte and Benjamin Hansen, who studied inclement weather days in Colorado and Maryland. Citing other evidence that a lengthened school year would improve achievement, their study found a link between snowfall and student performance in the districts they examined -- as the snow piled up, test scores dropped.
But a separate study of snow days in Massachusetts came to a different conclusion. Harvard professor Joshua Goodman, a former teacher, found that keeping schools open during a snowstorm is worse than closing schools. During bad weather, many students will miss anyway, he found. When school is closed, teachers don't have to worry about catching up a group of kids who have missed, since everyone has missed.
"With slack time in the schedule, the time lost to closure can be regained," Goodman wrote. "Student absences, however, force teachers to expend time getting students on the same page as their classmates."
Educators hope that technology eventually will help connect students to teachers even when they can't be in the same place. In many cases, it's already happening.
At Girls Preparatory School, where all students have a laptop, an iPad or both, teachers post assignments and projects on online portals so students can stay in the loop, whether they're home sick or school is closed for snow.
Suzy McKenna, who teaches sixth-grade English at GPS, said she doesn't give students a full day's worth of assignments when school is out. But she is able to keep them on pace -- letting them know what's expected when they return.
"The girls know the routine and that there are expectations, even if we have an unexpected absence," McKenna said.
While Hamilton County called off school for nearly four full days in late January, some students at the STEM School Chattanooga continued working on assignments and projects. At the STEM school -- which stands for science, technology, engineering and math -- students do most of their work on school-issued iPads.
All a student needs is his device and a Wi-Fi connection to complete school work, said Principal Tony Donen.
"I know that kids were working on things," Donen said. "To the extent they would have been if they were here? No."
The school plans to create a virtual day, in which teachers and students can stay connected all day in the event of future snow days. Donen said teachers are working on the concept this year so students next year can replicate the entire school day online.
"It's like a fire drill," he said. "You have to practice."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6249.
Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...