It's Back to School Time Once Again

August 18, 2010

With Labor Day fast approaching, it means that children will be heading back to school over the next couple of weeks. It seems that with each passing year the summers are getting shorter and shorter. While it actually may just feel that way, some local school districts around the state have experienced shortened summers over the past couple of years due to the fact that they were forced to make up a large number of school days thanks to some unusual circumstances.

Early this spring, schools in lower Fairfield County were closed for an extended period of time because of damage caused by a severe storm that left many homes and schools without power for days. This resulted in the school year being lengthened until the end of June. A similar situation occurred in 2009 when the Wells Road School in Granby was forced to shut down for a week because of the H1N1 virus. Despite an attempt by the legislature to allow Granby to reduce the state’s 180-day school year requirement to 178 days, the town was forced to keep the elementary school open until the week leading into the 4th of July weekend.

To prevent the school year from going into July, the state should give local Boards of Education the discretion to reduce the number of school days should an emergency situation arise that adds considerable amount of time to the school calendar. Some states, like Michigan and Minnesota that deal with harsh winter weather, do not require a “set” number of school days, so their problems are minimized. Here we wouldn’t be changing the 180-day requirement, but it would allow school districts to make the appropriate changes to their schedules if absolutely necessary to ensure that a school year does not go on indefinitely.

This year, the new school year also brings with it a new standard in school bus safety. Following last year’s tragic school bus accident on I-84 in Hartford that killed a Rocky Hill student, the legislature began looking at the issue of seatbelts on buses.

School bus travel is one of the safest modes of transportation. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Board, the occupant fatality rate for school bus passengers is six times lower than the overall fatality rate for motor vehicles. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop some in the legislature last year from wanting to implement a new costly unfunded municipal mandate requiring seatbelts on school buses, even though – according to testimony – it could cost towns up to $80,000 to retrofit each bus with belts. Such a mandate could literally bankrupt some towns.

A compromise that was reached creates a program which allows school districts to apply to get a refund on half of the sales tax of a school bus if they purchase it with seat belts. It also creates a separate account within the General Fund to pay for the program. Revenue for the fund is generated from fees for suspended or revoked licenses and the motor vehicle registration fee.

Of course seat belts do nothing to prevent what could happen to a child before they get on the bus or after they get off. Over the years, greater awareness and enforcement has been made to ensure that motorists obey flashing school bus stop lights. Many buses themselves have newer safety features including cameras and safety gates, but they can’t prevent all accidents. As the new school year begins, remind yourself to use extra caution when driving so that children can go to and from school safely.