Snowzilla bites off a week of classes

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While local governments scrambled to dig out streets and sidewalks from the massive Jan. 22-23 East Coast snowstorm, students celebrated the storm dubbed "Snowzilla" by swapping classes for snowballs, movies and hot cocoa.

Most diocesan schools were closed the entire week following the blizzard, which brought as much as three feet of snow to the region. Some schools were closed the Thursday prior after a small storm during rush hour Wednesday evening crippled roadways and left icy patches. Most closed Friday in anticipation of Snowzilla.

"Of course we want students to be in classes, but our No. 1 priority is to keep kids safe," said Sister Karl Ann Homberg, assistant superintendent of schools. Even later in the week, as plows moved from main streets to neighborhood roads, conditions were variable across the diocese.

"Things can look fine outside your window, but students and teachers come from various pockets, and it doesn't always look like what you're seeing in the front of your house," she said.

Diocesan schools typically follow their local school districts' decisions regarding closures and delays. Three diocesan high schools - Bishop Ireton in Alexandria, Bishop O'Connell in Arlington and Paul VI Catholic in Fairfax - follow Fairfax County Schools' lead; Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries follows Prince William County Schools.

At this point, no schools will need to add additional hours of instruction to make up for those lost due to the storm, said Sister Bernadette McManigal, superintendent of schools. Virginia law mandates 990 hours of instruction time per academic year, but the diocese easily fulfills the minimum by requiring 1,038. Diocesan schools also have three extra days built into the calendar to be used for emergencies.

Three of the four high schools completed first-semester exams before the storm. Exams at O'Connell were scheduled for the week after Snowzilla and had to be canceled.

"The decision was not made lightly," said Sister Catherine Hill, O'Connell dean of academics, about the cancellation. She said a number of factors went into the decision, including the desire to "offer students direct instruction rather than using time for assessment" and to ensure seniors' January transcripts were sent on time to colleges. Students wishing to boost their grades could opt to take the test at a later date.

A number of school-related events were postponed, including a science fair at St. Leo the Great School in Fairfax. And with Catholic Schools Week Feb. 1-5, planning related celebrations "was a bit more difficult," said Sister Bernadette.

But snowstorms are "an act of God," she said, "and they call for flexibility."

Structurally, nearly all the schools weathered the storm well, save St. Timothy School in Chantilly, where snow caused part of the roof above the music room to collapse.

One of the biggest challenges for schools is clearing the parking lots, said Sister Bernadette. Each school is responsible for snow removal, with schools and parishes factoring the expense into their budget.

Highs in the upper 50s and melting snow greeted students as they returned to school Feb. 1. Although Fairfax, Loudoun and Fauquier counties had a two-hour delay, cabin-fever-filled students filed into all diocesan classrooms after as many as 11 days away.

At Paul VI, students were a bit louder than usual, said Tom Opfer, vice principal and dean of academics. "There is a lot of energy in the hallways," he laughed. "It's great."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016