School officials remain optimistic despite mounting snow days

LEWISTOWN – There are 28 days until spring. By now, everyone is counting.

Snow storms, frigid temperatures and accumulations of ice recently have kept school district officials awake in the early hours of the morning while students wait by their phones for notification. Seemingly unending bouts of winter weather have extended the holiday break into the new year, allowing only a handful of school days to fall between delays and closures.

In fact, administrators in Mifflin and Juniata county school districts say students haven’t had a full week of school since December.

“Kids haven’t been in school like they should,” said Richard Musselman, superintendent of the Juniata County School District.

The frequency of winter storms has an affect on education, he said, but administration is working to provide for both student safety and learning needs.

When the forecast looks threatening, superintendents from every district in the Tuscarora Intermediate Unit 11 join a conference call before school is scheduled to start. Mifflin County School District Superintendent James Estep said administration is on the phone around 4:30 a.m. to talk with National Weather Service correspondents and TIU 11 Executive Director Richard Daubert.

Musselman said the group reviews weather reports and forecasts together. Individually, he also checks in with township supervisors before making the decision to delay or close school.

“Sometimes, I will go out and drive,” he added, and analyze the current road conditions himself.

Estep said he contacts the MCSD transportation coordinator, public safety department and PennDOT for updates.

“We go to as many possible sources as we can in order to try to make the best decisions,” he said.

From there, Musselman said officials try to paint a picture based on the information gathered. He said decisions have to be made at least two hours in advance of delays or closures.

In unpredictable conditions, weather can change significantly throughout the day, he said. By the time school hours come, students and parents may question the decision to close school based on what they see out their windows at the time. That view, Musselman said, isn’t always clear in advance.

“It’s not a flip of the switch,” he explained. “It takes planning and coordination.”

With approximately 10 weather-related closures so far this year, both superintendents were cautiously optimistic about the schedule for the rest of the year.

Estep said Mifflin County started school earlier in August than usual, getting a jump start on the 2013-2014 school year. Between an early start date and built-in snow days, Estep said MCSD students are still scheduled to complete the year in the first week of June.

“We’re getting out much earlier than our neighbors are,” he said.

Musselman said Juniata County tries to collaborate with Mifflin County since students from both districts attend the Mifflin Juniata Career and technology Center. But sometimes storms bypass one county and hit the other – such was the case on Tuesday when MCSD closed and JCSD delayed two hours.

Moving forward, Musselman said starting the school year earlier in Juniata County is a consideration for next year.

For now, both superintendents said they will talk with their respective school boards during public meetings Thursday about the possibility of utilizing April 21 as a make-up day. The day originally was planned as vacation.

Both district school boards already used President’s Day as a make-up day.

On a state level, the Pennsylvania Department of Education is allowing school districts to move standardized testing dates back by a week or a week and a half, Estep said.

“They knew we were all closing so much … from the testing standpoint, the Department of Education is trying to account for all the missed days,” he said.

Musselman said the change will give teachers more time to prepare students.

Intermittent storms may be gone for now, and temperatures are expected to reach 40-50 degrees into the coming weekend. It’s too soon to tell if the cold weather is gone for good.

“We have a lot of winter left,” Musselman said.

For the latest information on school delays and closings, visit the Mifflin County School District website at or Juniata County School District website at Information about utilizing April 21 as a make-up day is expected to be available within school board meeting reports from both counties, expected to be included in Friday’s edition of The Sentinel.