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Posts Tagged ‘School’s Out Again’

What a difference a global health crisis has made in Canadian K-12 education.  All of a sudden everyone has been thrust into “online learning” for weeks on end and “learning packets” are something housebound parents and children see as a welcome break from staring at small screens. It’s a completely new experience for the vast majority of students, teachers and parents with a few notable exceptions — those living in North American school districts with established E-Learning Day programs to support students during unplanned school closures.

eLearning2019DaysCoverThe unexpected and unplanned COVID-16 school closures catapulted teachers into the unfamiliar territory of e-learning, forcing most to learn to use the new technology on the fly. It was no less a shock for parents, scrambling to grapple with Learning at Home programs while tending to their children cooped-up in social isolation. Now that there’s a glint of light at the end of the first wave COVID-19 school shutdown, it may be time to consider being better prepared the next time.

Some North American school districts were far better prepared than others for the radical shift to COVID-19 emergency online learning. Which ones?  Those in the twelve American states which had already adopted E-Learning Days as a means of making-up lost instructional time as a result of winter storms or unexpected calamities.

Former Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville made that exact point in a recent interview in the Harvard Gazette (April 10, 2020).  While assessing the paradigm shift to e-learning now underway, he mentioned that school districts in New Hampshire with established e-learning days were far better prepared and made a much “easier transition” because they already had “a back-up online learning system.”

No region in North America cancels school days with the frequency and duration found in Canada’s Maritime provinces. Introducing E-Learning Days in the Maritimes had been proposed, considered, and tossed aside several times in the preceding decade. For those who may have forgotten what transpired, a refresher might be in order.

Since a Nova Scotia Storm Days report by Dr. Jim Gunn in November 2009, a decade ago, not much has changed in terms of  recouping learning time and the number of days lost to storms almost doubled over the intervening years.

A succession of severe snow and ice storms in late February 2015 finally spurred some promised action.  After New Brunswick’s Education Minister  Serge Rousselle  announced he was looking at adding “make-up” days, his Nova Scotia counterpart, Karen Casey, shocked everyone by sounding a public alarm bell.  In a media scrum, Education Minister Casey drew what sounded like ‘a line in the ice’ and openly mused about sending students and teachers to school on Saturdays and during March break to make up for some five lost days.

The resulting furor actually set back the cause. Premier Stephen McNeil was forced to intervene, assuring worried parents that the province was not going to commandeer their upcoming holidays. Nothing more happened.

EDaysCartoonIndyStar

Five years ago, E-Learning Days were proposed in media interviews and in a series of commentaries for the Maritime Canada media and local news talk radio stations. Embracing E-Days and providing students without internet access with so-called “blizzard bags” was endorsed in editorials recognizing it as a ‘smart solution’ to appropriating school holidays or extending the school year.

Replacing Storm Days with E-Learning Days was advanced as a way of protecting learning time, clicking-in after five days of school were lost to storm day cancellations.  The mere idea of providing “homework pouches” for those children without internet access was mocked by skeptical teachers as totally impractical and of little value to children or families.

A December 2019 progress report on the spread of E-Learning Days, produced by the U.S.-based Digital Learning Collaborative, demonstrates the gradual spread of E-Learning Days and its vital role in expanding digital learning in mainstream American school districts.

E-Learning Days are now used in a dozen states to fill the specific need to “maintain instruction during unplanned school closures.”  Six U.S. states, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, all have their own policies and exemplary programs.

While the prime use remains as a means of ensuring ‘continuity of learning’ during adverse weather conditions or natural disasters, they are now being employed during “widespread illness” and for parent-teacher conferences or teacher professional development purposes.

Much like COVID-19 Home Learning Days, E-Days work best when they follow a simple, predictable daily schedule. Students access online instructional modules from home or elsewhere, usually in the mornings and submit work at day’s end.

Using a leaning management system, teachers post digital instructional materials and assignments, as well as refer students to core texts or resource books at home. Video conferencing is used periodically for brief check-ins. School systems expect teachers to be available during specific hours in case students have questions or to gather-up and date-stamp assignments. Learning packets are provided to students without access to ed tech or internet.

Critical lessons learned in implementing E-Days prove extremely useful during prolonged periods of school shutdown. “Planning, preparing and implementing E-Learning days well,” the recent report points out, “requires significant effort, and without significant planning and preparation, E-Learning days are unlikely to result in meaningful learning.”

Implementing E-Days now looks entirely feasible in the wake of the prolonged COVID-19 school shutdown. With such a back-up plan, school districts everywhere would definitely be much better prepared next time an epidemic knocks out regular in-person classes.

What stood in the way of adopting E-Learning Day plans and programs before the COVID-19 pandemic?  Why is it that some American states have proven much better equipped for a smooth transition to primarily online learning?  Why did previous Public Health pandemic plans simply default to cancelling school and sending students home without any real continuity of learning plan?  Which Canadian education authority will be the first to establish an exemplary E-Learning Day policy and program? 

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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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