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Archive for the ‘School Snow Days’ Category

Major snow storms raise public anxieties and have given rise to a relatively new phenomenon known as “Snowpocalypse” or “Snowmageddon.” It’s now a widely-used term referring to the sensationalist reaction of popular news stations to the approach of a snow storm, coupling “snow” with the mythical doom and gloom of a 21st century “Armageddon.” Whether the public hype associated with such language feeds the ‘crowd psychology’ contributing to the closing of schools is a hot topic worthy of investigation.

SnowDayVancouverThe term “Snowcopalypse” was first used in media reports in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest to refer to a snowstorm in December of 2008. The Canadian press and social media began using the two terms interchangeably to describe a snowstorm in January of 2009. It popped up in a 2008 children’s book entitled Winter Blast and written by Chris Wright who used “snowmageddon” in the storyline of his book.  Today it is almost routinely used interchangeably with “snowmageddon” conjuring up fears before, during, and after a storm hits.

Twice during the month of February 2019 the popular press and social media lit up with sensational, over-the-top, and hilarious reports appropriating the terms and bearing scary news headlines such as Polar Vortex Storm and the hashtag #Snowmageddon2019 It came in two distinct waves with the arrival of a “Polar Vortex” (February 4-7, 2019) bringing frigid cold to large swaths of central Canada and the United States Mid-West and then a full-blown “Snowmageddon” from February 10 to 13 coming in a storm blast from the Pacific Coast to the the Atlantic provinces.

The peak of “Snowmageddon” hit the Maritimes on Wednesday February 13, 2019 and brought the whole region to a halt, closing every school in all three Maritime provinces. For three days leading up to the storm, regional news reports contained dire warnings of the coming snowstorm as it advanced from central Canada eastward into Quebec and the Maritimes. The region’s leading storm tracking and advisory network, known as the CBC News Storm Centre, pumped out regular reports by their staff meteorologists adding further to the hype surrounding the coming storm event.

Every school district in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island was on storm alert the day before the event — and all jurisdictions, like clockwork, announced full-system shutdowns. Initial forecasts of snowfalls ranging from 15 to 30 cm ( 6 to 12 inches) were enough to trigger school closure protocols and, as of 6 am on February 13, 2019, school was cancelled in three provinces, impacting some 733 schools, 18,000 teachers, and 235,000 students and families.

The three Maritime provinces have a well-deserved reputation for closing schools with great regularity during the winter months. The pronounced tendency of school authorities to declare “snow days” and shut down entire districts was well documented in two reports issued almost ten years ago, James Gunn’s School Storm Days in Nova Scotia (November 2009) and my own April 2010 AIMS report, School’s Out, Again.  Both studies were prompted by the high incidence of closures in Nova Scotia during 2008-09 when boards shuttered schools for a record number of days, averaging more than 8 days across the province.

Full days of school were being cancelled for anticipated storms, road conditions, and forecasts of freezing rain. Comparing Maritime school districts with comparable jurisdictions outside the region, it was revealed that Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were all more inclined to close their schools during winter storms. In some cities, such as Calgary and Winnipeg, schools never close and, even in districts like the Quebec Eastern Townships, cancellations averaged fewer than three a year.

Whether school is cancelled depends, to a surprising degree, on where you happen to live in Canada. The most recent snowstorm, starting on February 10 in Vancouver and rolling across the country for three days, provided a stark reminder of how different the responses are to heavy snowfall and storm conditions.

Freak snow storms hitting Vancouver and the B.C. Lower Mainland are a total rarity and the one on February 10 dumped 10 cm of snow and 4.8 mm of rain, enough to cause mass panic, school closures on the South Coast, and massive traffic jams involving cars, mostly equipped with summer tires. In the Prairie West, the storm barely registered and schools everywhere operated as usual through every type of weather condition, including deep freezes of -30 degrees or lower Celsius. Hypothermia and frostbite are two conditions that do warrant special instructions for parents and children.

A big snow dump in Ontario and Quebec, hitting on February 12 and 13, forced education authorities to either close schools or suspend student busing and leaving student attendance up to “parent’s discretion.”  Canada’s biggest school system, the Toronto District School Board, closed its schools when 7 cm of snow and 18 mm of rain fell on February 12 and that shutdown was only the third time (1996, 2011, and 2019) in two decades. A heavy storm bearing 30 cm of snow and rain forced Ottawa public schools to be closed that day for the fist time in 23 years. Quebec school districts in and around Montreal were buried by two days of 40 cm of snow and rain — and followed suit by closing their schools.

In spite of all the advance media hype, ‘Snowcopalypse 2019,’ never delivered the forecasted snowfall in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island. Meteorologists employed by CBC News and CTV Atlantic projected heavy snowfalls of 15 to 40 cm across the region, issuing storm warnings, and predicting hazardous road conditions. The public, and especially children, were warned to stay home and off the roads.  A featured CBC TV News report, originating in New Brunswick, aired on the eve of the storm seeking to demonstrate how effective and systematic school managers were in executing full system shutdowns.

School superintendents, acting on the advice of school transportation managers, acted almost in unison on February 13 in shutting down all schools, urban and rural, in all parts of the region. When the fast-moving storm passed, the snowfall and rain totals fell far short of the projections. Moncton Airport, according to Environment Canada, did register 26 cm of snow and 22 mm of rain, leaving 14 cm on the ground, Some 20 cm of snow also fell on Prince Edward Island, as registered at Charlottetown.

The latest Snowcopalypse proved to be a paper tiger in Halifax and much of Nova Scotia, Halifax Airport got 21 cm of snow and 22.4 mm of rain, leaving just 7 cm of snow on the ground. That was about one-third of the totals recorded on February 13, 2017, when all schools were closed in Halifax and elsewhere. Closing the schools left the streets and access highways nearly abandoned and an eerie quiet descended upon the Halifax downtown.  By the next morning, the sun was beaming and the streets remarkably clear.

Are public fears of Snowcopalypse grossly exaggerated and, if so, is it the work of the popular press or over-zealous social media commentators?  To what extent do the radically different responses to winter storms and frigid temperatures reflect regional and or cultural differences? Is the proclivity to shut down all schools an indicator of more fundamental differences in public attitudes toward the value families place on school attendance and student learning?   

 

 

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The largest school board in Atlantic Canada, the Halifax Regional School Board (HRSB), may be the first in the nation to defend cancelling classes on Monday February 8, 2016 to prepare for a “pending blizzard” that eventually produced a routine snowstorm after school hours. Hours later they announced a second day full system shutdown, provoking howls of protest from vocal critics and citizens claiming boards are too quick to call snow days that inconvenience parents and cost teaching time.

NSStormChips“They have closed all schools due to a ‘pending’ storm. Not one flake of snow has dropped out of the sky,” one woman wrote on Facebook.  But HRSB spokesman Doug Hadley said officials had information that the snow could start by 11 a.m. “It wasn’t the question of getting everyone to school, it was a question of getting everyone home safely,” Hadley wrote in an email. That decision not only impacted 137 schools, 4,000 teachers, and almost 40,000 students, but precipitated a rash of early business closures virtually idling the region’s leading business and government centre.

Closing schools system-wide is a rarity in many areas of the country. My AIMS report, Schools Out, Again, produced in April 2010, raised the first alarm bells. Comparing Maritime school closure records with those in six different jurisdictions, including Winnipeg, Calgary, York Region, Durham Region, and the Quebec Eastern Townships, the pattern was abundantly clear — most school districts outside the region close school only 2-3 times a year  or never, not for an average of 8 to 12 days a year, as in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, PEI, and Newfoundland/Labrador.

A survey of Nova Scotia’s highway cameras on February 8, 2016 at  3 pm showed no snow cover on 47 or the 51 highway locations monitored by highway cams.  Yet the Halifax, Annapolis, South Shore, and Tri-County regional school boards closed all schools, all day. The Acadian School Board cancelled its mainland schools. Université Sainte-Anne, Acadia, Dalhousie, Mount St. Vincent, NSCAD, and Saint Mary’s Universities all shut down.

Astute political observer Parker Donham, curator of The Contrarianfelt compelled to declare that “Nova Scotia schools no longer have zero tolerance of snow. They have zero tolerance of the possibility of future snow.” He also tallied up the financial cost to the province of this one day of weather paranoia:

  • Upwards of 100,000 school children lost a day in school unnecessarily.
  • Thousands of teachers and school board staff got a paid day off. [HRSB staff worked a half day.]
  • Roughly 68,000 households had to scramble to make last minute child care arrangements (based on an estimated 1.5 students per family).
  • Some of those parents lost a day of work.
  • Thousands of employers endured absenteeism and paid work time diverted to managing the school boards’ indifference to community needs, provincial employees were sent home at 1 pm.

Defenders of full system Snow Day school closures maintain that school boards should always “err on the side of safety” and trot out the standard claim that students are safer “off -the-roads.” Many of the apologists also claim that riding school buses is somehow more dangerous than riding in personal vehicles, driving ATVs, and sliding down snow-covered hills. That argument deserves further investigation.

SchoolBusNoMoreSnowDaysSchool buses continue to be one of the safest methods of travel for children and youth. Only 0.3 percent of all collisions resulting in personal injury or death involved school buses. Yet, over a 10 year span (1995-2004), children traveled by bus as many as 6 billion times, an estimated 600 million pupil-trips per year and 3,400,000 pupil-trips each day. Over the 10-year period, only 142 people died in collisions involving school buses; and just five of these fatalities were bus passengers.

The Ontario Ministry of Transportation compares the likelihood of accidents using various modes of transportation. Compared to occupants of school vehicles, occupants of cars and trucks are: 42 times more likely to be in a fatal collision; 45 times more likely to be in an injury collision; and 25.7 times more likely to be in a collision of any kind. A United States study in the American Journal of Public Health (2005)looked at crash counts during snowy weather versus dry weather conditions and found that snow covered roads generally produce less severe crashes and fewer fatalities.

Some school boards, most notably the Calgary Board of Education, insist that school children are far safer on school buses and in schools during most snowstorms. It’s also fair to say that most school districts outside Atlantic Canada shut their systems down only as a last resort in the most severe, hazardous conditions. Cancelling classes so families can prepare for snow storms is truly unique to Canada’s Atlantic provinces and undoubtedly contributes to the region’s well-known productivity challenges.

Why are Maritime school boards so quick to cancel classes in advance of snow storms?  Where’s the research evidence to support the claim that kids are safer in personal vehicles or playing unattended  outside than travelling by bus to teacher-supervised schools?  Is it time to assess the safety risks of cancelling schools with such frequency? 

 

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Closing schools at the first sign of a coming snowstorm is a 20th century tradition that may soon come to an end.  So is turning on the morning radio or TV bright and early in eager anticipation of the predictable announcement. The local Storm Centre list makes it official: “School’s out again.”

SnowDaySceneNow comes news from the American “snow belt” states that the storm day itself may be threatened by, of all things, the gradual advance of 21st century e-learning. Already, U.S. school districts from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Westerville City, Ohio, to Trimble County, Ky. are beginning to take full advantage of the Internet to convert snow days into cyber-learning days.

While many Canadian and American  school boards continue to declare snow days, idling millions of students and thousands of teachers, a viable alternative to cancelling school days is slowly emerging in the United States. Since August of 2011, the State of Ohio has authorized school districts to develop “e-day plans” for storm days, implementing them once five days have been lost in the school year. It’s a very ingenious response to the significant loss of student learning time.

School snow days are back with a vengeance in the current school year. So far in 2013-14, students in Nova Scotia, Canada’s largest Maritime province,  have already lost from three to 12.5 full school days, depending upon the school board, mostly as a result of storm cancellations. Two of the regional boards, Chignecto-Central (CCRSB) and Annapolis Valley (AVRSB), are on pace to break the previous record of 14 lost days, set during the 2008-09 school year.

Five years ago, the high incidence of school cancellations sparked a provincewide debate. Jim Gunn’s storm days report (December 2009) documented the extent of the problem and recommended a number of operational changes to minimize the impact upon the system. My own April 2010 policy report for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) compared school days lost in boards across Canada and contended that the number of days lost in 2008-09 hurt student performance, particularly on the June 2009 Grade 12 mathematics exams.

A few minor policy adjustments have been implemented since then. Schools in the Halifax regional board are, as a result of David Cameron’s 2011 board motion, now closed more often by families of schools, conserving time lost in walkable city school zones. The CCRSB has also attempted to be more flexible, not always closing across the board. In the South Shore school board, a “back roads closure plan” has been implemented, keeping school buses operating on snowy days and allowing more schools to stay open.

School days are still being written off by system administrators and school principals and the Education Department continues to take a laissez-faire approach. Working parents and concerned community members who raise any objections are treated as “kill-joys” or chastised for their lack of concern for child safety on hazardous roads. Why worry? some say. Enjoy the family time and be happy.

Why are the three Maritime provinces so out of sync with other Canadian school systems and most American states? School boards in Calgary, Winnipeg, south central Ontario and the Quebec Eastern Townships all experience brutal storms and heavy snow, but rarely, if ever, close their schools. School officials in Calgary, Winnipeg, and York Region maintain that students are safer in school and in buses rather than cars.

What changed the dynamic in the American snow belt states? Political and business leadership was critical. State governors and school commissioners, at the urging of business employers, responded to public concerns when school was cancelled repeatedly, disrupting working families and affecting productivity levels in the plant or business office.

How did it happen? Concerned parents pressed state governors and legislators to take action to stop the erosion of instructional time. School districts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wheeling, West Virginia, and rural Kentucky sought to eliminate the lost days entirely by introducing make-up school days in place of professional development days or at the end of the term.

The best solution came out of Ohio. After five days lost, school districts were authorized to institute either “e-lesson days” or to provide make-up days to guarantee a minimum number of instructional days each year. Faced with those options, some 86 Ohio schools have now registered to offer e-days during school storm closures. On those days, teachers go online at 10 a.m. and provide lessons online until 5 p.m., providing a full day of online learning.

E-days do work best in digital-learning, networked lap-top schools, but surprising numbers of schools rely solely on school-to-home computer connections. Since most of today’s homes have networked home computers or mobile devices, more students report in than on some regular school days.

Turning disposable storm days into e-learning days is clearly the wave of the present as well as the future. It’s time to get serious about moving forward with 21st century learning and to tackle the problem of throw-away school days.

What’s standing in the way of implementing E-Learning Days in schools?  The Internet is no longer a novelty and the 21st century began almost 15 years ago. Go ahead and give us your rationalizations.

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