New superintendent's first task: cancel school in New London, again

New London — As one of his first acts as the city's new schools chief, Manuel J. Rivera canceled school on what was his first day as New London's superintendent.

Rivera, for whom Monday was the first full day on the job, "had to kick into action based on experience" as the second snowstorm in a week approached New London on Sunday evening, he said Monday.

The last week of snow and ice gave students an unexpected week of vacation, as Monday marked the fifth consecutive day that schools have been closed in New London, and students have not had a full day of school since Jan. 23.

"If I'm going to make a mistake," Rivera said, "I'm going to make mistake on the side of safety."

After talking to a longtime district employee, Communications Manager Julianne Hanckel said, "This is probably one of the longest running streaks" of cancellations in New London in recent memory.

Rivera said he once had to cancel an entire week of school while he was leading the Rochester, N.Y., school system.

"I think we had close to four feet of snow fall over the weekend and the city couldn't clear the parking lots and sidewalks, they needed those days to clear all the snow we got," he said.

When New London's Board of Education set the district's calendar for this school year, the last day of school was expected to be June 5. But now, with at least five snow days to make up, the final day of school could be pushed back to at least June 12, unless the district chooses to hold classes during a scheduled vacation or on Saturdays.

"April vacation is usually a time when a lot of families and staff members have made commitments, so that is a tough one to do," Rivera said. "I think we'll have to look at where else in the year there might be an opportunity to make up a few days. And not to exclude Saturday either, I think that's a great idea."

In 2011, East Lyme eliminated its February vacation to compensate for days lost in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene.

"One thing I want to do (Tuesday) morning is start having conversations about how we might be able to make up these days in a constructive period, maybe revisit the school calendar," Rivera said. "We'll have to get together with our teacher representatives and others to talk about what we might do that would work well for our children."

Rivera said he planned on taking some time Sunday to unpack a few things and settle into his new office. But, with snow on the way, he instead began assessing the possibility of canceling school for Monday.

"I came in and knew that, with the forecast, I'd need to start making some phone calls," he said. "I have a process that I follow for these decisions."

The process Rivera follows to decide whether school should be called off is one he has honed over his nearly 10-year career as a superintendent.

Rivera said he or someone on his staff confers with the Department of Public Works to assess road conditions and that he relies on forecasts and data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sometimes, if he is still uncertain, Rivera will drive the streets early in the morning to find out firsthand whether they are safe for school buses.

Complicating the decision to close the schools is the fact that many New London students rely upon the school district for two meals a day and warm respite from the winter cold.

"A lot of children sometimes depend on getting their breakfast and their lunch from the school district, so that is always a concern. School needs to be the safe haven for a lot of children," Rivera said. "That issue is something we have to look at here in New London. I know during summer there were food programs and we did a lot in that regard. I think that would be something the community, churches and perhaps other organizations might be helpful in addressing."

Rivera said he will make a decision early this morning whether to extend New London's impromptu vacation week to a sixth straight day.

"We are going to make sure the schools are ready for (Tuesday), obviously the plan is to have school," he said. "However, we'll be checking the condition of roads and sidewalks and everything else early in morning."

c.young@theday.com

Twitter: @ColinAYoung

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