Mark your calendar for May 29

CHARLES TOWN – Schoolchildren across Jefferson County may be keeping their fingers crossed: As long as there’s no snow to cancel classes in the coming weeks, they’ll wrap up the 2011-12 school year in May.

Student Aaron Hickman, 7, reaches for an orange during lunch break at Ranson Elementary School on Tuesday.

It’s been decades since students started their summer break before June, but Jefferson Superintendent Susan Wall notes that nothing’s official yet.

“We’ve had big storms in mid-March,” she said. “We could still get hit.”

Barring a barrage of snow this month, students in Jefferson County will take their Memorial Day holiday then return on May 29 for their final day of the year.

Their counterparts in Berkeley County are set to finish the school year even earlier, on May 22. Students in Berkeley started the school year on Aug. 22, the week before Jefferson did.

It’s unusual for school systems in West Virginia to go an entire school year without a snow day, but this year – light on winter weather – the only time snow has accumulated has been on weekends and days when kids already were off from school.

And this year contrasts with the snowy 2009-2010 school year when none of West Virginia’s school systems were able to complete the state-mandated 180 days of instruction.

Kanawha County ended that year closest to the mark with 178 instructional days. In Summers County, snow kept students out of class for a grand total of 20 days.

After the debacle of all 55 school systems missing the mandate, legislators altered some of the rigid rules regarding how snow days may be made up.

It clearly was a good move, said Joe Panetta, executive director of the Office of School Finance for the West Virginia Department of Education.

“It’s satisfying to see that we don’t have any school systems that will fall short, not even in the snow belt counties of Tucker and Preston,” he said.

Panetta said school systems in counties that historically get a lot of snow were required to build in eight makeup days – and this year they may not need all of them.

“A lot of school systems across the state will get out this year at least a little earlier than what’s been typical,” said Panetta, who has been with the state Department of Education for more than two decades.

With greater flexibility in designing their school calendars, school officials in parts of West Virginia have elected to start classes in mid-August and have students complete their first semester just before Christmas break.

“What we’re seeing is school systems operating more the way colleges do – they’re starting earlier in August and then they’re finishing earlier,” Panetta said.

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