Travel

As Sandy Steals Spring Break, Businesses Worry


Mickey and Minnie Mouse pose for photos with visitors at Disney's Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida

Photograph by Frank Polich/Bloomberg News

Mickey and Minnie Mouse pose for photos with visitors at Disney's Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida

After the 2012 winter break was cut short to make up for school days lost to Hurricane Irene, Lori Uhlendorf saw the toll it took on her two kids. “My son especially needs a break,” says Uhlendorf, pointing to her 12-year-old’s work load in middle school. (She also has an 8-year-old daughter.)

So when Superstorm Sandy’s sweep through Fairfield, N.J., caused further school closures and raised the specter of an additional lost break, Uhlendorf made her views known on Change.org. She launched a petition calling on New Jersey officials to waive the requirement for 180 days of instruction when there are state-of-emergency closures. In less than a week, she amassed more than 1,500 signatures. “The only negative feedback I got was from a woman whose child has severe autism,” she says, “and her complaint was about how tough it was to take care of him at home.”

Uhlendorf  knows her concerns are mild, next to the devastation felt in nearby communities. She’s not on the hook for an expensive vacation package and isn’t about to blame politicians for bad weather. But she echoes the wistfulness of many families in the Northeast who welcome a respite from the bleakness of mid-winter. Along with flooding, damaged homes, and further tragic consequences from Sandy, those families are discovering that their vacation plans are likely to be damaged, too.

On Nov. 19, New York City’s Department of Education announced that its 1.1 million students must attend full-day classes Feb. 20-22, cutting a popular getaway week down to little more than a long weekend. Across Long Island, a number of school boards have canceled the break altogether. In some parts of hard-hit New Jersey, which has 1.4 million kids enrolled in public schools, districts have also scheduled classes near Easter, too. Since the priority is to get kids up-to-date before various standardized tests are scheduled, the winter break is an inviting stretch from which to pluck days.

While that may prompt wailing from kids (offset, perhaps, by parents who will save on child care), the biggest cries could come from businesses that cater to families on vacation. Because parents tend to rigorously schedule their holidays around school breaks, hotels and resorts can charge a premium to reflect that demand. From ski resorts in Vermont to theme parks in Florida, numerous destinations count on heavy traffic at that time of year. They know all-too-well that a canceled family holiday is typically gone, not rescheduled.

A Disney World (DIS) spokesman said the company doesn’t comment on specific numbers, but Presidents Week is traditionally one of the most crowded times of the year, falling during the peak travel season. About 23.7 million tourists visited Florida from January to March, according to Visit Florida, the state’s marketing arm. New Yorkers accounted for about 9 percent of domestic visitors in 2011, while almost 5 percent came from New Jersey. For ski resorts in the Northeast, that’s typically their heaviest week.

State officials have little choice in the matter. Both New York and New Jersey require 180 days of instruction for state aid purposes, even when disaster strikes. School boards can’t hold classes on legal holidays such as Martin Luther King Day and New Years Day, nor can they keep students in school for longer hours and count them toward lost days. New York State’s Commissioner of Education can excuse five days of instruction under extraordinary circumstances, and department spokeswoman Antonia Valentine notes that a bill has been filed in the state legislature to allow the commissioner to excuse up to 10 days this school year. (Such relief was provided in the 2011-12 year.)

And in New Jersey? Barbara Morgan, a Department of Education spokeswoman, doesn’t give parents like Lori Uhlendorf much hope: The state has no plan to waive its 180-day instruction rule. Uhlendorf has resigned herself to another year without a winter vacation. “When you have a state of emergency, people should be allowed to use common sense,” she says.

Having envisioned a week in which her family could simply hang out at home, she’ll pack the kids off for a further week of school. “If I had a vacation planned and paid for, I’d probably take it,” she says.”There’s a lot of time between Christmas and spring.”

Brady_190
Brady is a senior editor for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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