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The Death of Snow Days

I really love snow days. Every time a storm rolls into town, I wake up, rush to the window, and rip the curtains open, hoping to see those tiny, beautiful flakes of hope drift past my wide little eyes. And while my dad usually grumbles to his coffee about the morning commute as he surveys what he calls the “mess” on our street, I see nothing but the pure white promise of fun and freedom.

Brings back fond memories, doesn’t it? Well, you’d better put those safely away in the vault. Today, we discuss the impending death of the snow day. I’ll give you a minute to recover emotionally if you need it.

In states across the country, districts are experimenting with ways to avoid weather-related cancellations. Pennsylvania has created a pilot program that allows virtual learning on snow days to count as normal instruction, a school district in Georgia is doing something very similar, and New Jersey has a piece of pending state legislation aimed at making at-home, technology-based learning on snow days permissible under state law. Meanwhile, a rural district in Kentucky will allow up to ten at-home learning days due to the area’s traditionally heavy snowfall.

But why all the fuss about snow days? Is it just because of the absurd snowfall we’ve already seen in some areas this year? Not really. Believe or not, there’s actually a good deal of research out there on the subject.

For instance, there is evidence that snow days can have a measurable negative impact on student achievement. That isn’t terribly surprising—we’ve known for some time that instructional time matters when it comes to students achievement.

In addition, districts have to consider statutory requirements on instructional time. Many states require a certain number of school days per year (Colorado requires instructional hours in addition to a minimum number of days). Districts can make up missed time at the end of the school year if need be, but those make-up days will usually come after the annual spring testing window closes. Given that missed instructional time could impact test results, make-up days could be too little, too late when it comes to accountability and accreditation.

At the same time, newer research seems to indicate that cancellations are generally less harmful than leaving a school open despite a high number of likely absences. And then there are all the other issues that come with keeping schools open during blizzards—safety, parental inconvenience, and staff absences. Just ask Bill de Blasio about the ramifications of unpopular snow decisions.

That leaves districts in tough spot. On the one hand, closing schools could have some fairly substantial negative impacts. On the other hand, there are often very good reasons to keep students at home when the weather gets nasty.

Technology provides a solution. Teachers can create interactive online assessments for kids to do at home, lectures and discussion sessions can be done online, and students can collaborate on and turn in assignments using software like Google Docs. Not bad, eh?

The trick, of course, is that districts must be able to ensure that all kids have access to the necessary equipment and high-speed internet. They may also need to find a way to get required meals to low-income students at home. These will undoubtedly be obstacles in many districts. Even so, technology-based instruction may provide the best compromise between student safety and student achievement when Mother Nature gets grumpy.

It may be only a matter of time before we see districts in Colorado head down the path toward eliminating snow days as we once knew them. And despite the logic behind the strategy, that makes me a little sad. After all, everyone loves a snow day.