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Posts Tagged ‘Snow Days’

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Snowstorms and icy roads signal the return of a hardy perennial — the public education debate over “snow days” and their impact upon students, families and communities. After almost two years of on-and-off COVID-19 school closures, the pandemic may have engineered an online evolution that spells the end of system-wide shutdowns at the first sign of inclement weather. Most, if not all, of the rationalizations for declaring “snow days” have disappeared.

When COVID-19 hit twenty-one months ago, schools closed and school systems pivoted to remote learning, combining traditional homework assignments and online classroom activities. Schools were closed in Canada from 8 weeks (British Columbia)  to 20 weeks (Ontario)  between March 2020 and mid-May 2021, and the gradual adoption of technology allowed students to learn from home.

“Continuous learning” enabled through technology and the internet survived the initial bumps, breakdowns and dislocations, mostly ironed out during the 2020-21 school year.  Successful use and broader public acceptance of e-learning has now prompted many and perhaps a majority of North American school districts to do away with unscheduled days off for a range of natural calamities, including snow storms, hurricanes, flooding, heat waves, and epidemic diseases.

Southwestern Ontario’s largest school district, Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), responded by announcing the end of snow days. All 160 public schools in the London region, a mixed urban and rural district, are now required to provide online activities for their snowbound students.  That board averaged about 5 to 7 snow day cancellations before the pandemic, roughly half the number claimed each year in rural Nova Scotia and the Maritimes.

The TVDSB’s associate director, Riley Culhane, says students, teachers and parents are ready to provide bridging education in “virtual classrooms.”  Teachers have some discretion in deciding whether to offer “synchronous learning” or simply assign work to be completed at home.  The continued use of e-learning days that were required during the pandemic, Culhane told the London Free Press, “just makes sense.”

The Ontario government pointed the way by encouraging school boards to prepare for shifts to remote learning, including during closures caused by adverse weather. That province’s back-to-school plan in August 2021 included a provision to enable districts to move smoothly to remote learning in the event of inclement weather.  School boards are directed to develop inclement weather plans with local public health units, encompassing both heat days and storm days.

School districts in the United States have in recent years been gradually abandoning system-wide snow days, particularly since Ohio introduced e-learning days, enabled through “calamity day” plans, back in 2010. The proliferation of remote learning during COVID-19 accelerated the trend, particularly in states with severe weather rivalling that in the Maritimes.

A clear majority of American states are now on board in making the shift. An Education Week research survey, conducted in October 2020, reported that some 39 per cent of American school districts had converted snow days to remote learning days and 32 per cent were considering that change.

Public claims that snow days do not adversely affect student achievement hinge on the number and cumulative effect of days lost. While a January 2014 study covering 2003 to 2010 and undertaken for the National Bureau of Educational Research found minimal negative impact on achievement, that state averaged only 3 to 4 snow days per year and has amongst the lowest rates of student absenteeism.

Cancelling school as often as happens in Nova Scotia and the rest of Maritime Canada does have a detrimental effect on student learning.  One relevant 2008 study, in Maryland public schools, found that as snow days piled-up that did have a cumulative effect, particularly at the elementary level, they did adversely affect student performance on state reading and math assessments.

Long before the pandemic, Nova Scotia students were paying an academic price for system-wide snow days. In the Maryland study, a high level of unscheduled closures – about 10 days (the Nova Scotia average), translated into 5 per cent fewer students meeting Grade 3 standards in reading and mathematics.

SnowDaysComparison

School authorities in the Maritimes have always defended calling snow days and giving everyone a ‘free day’ with no specific academic expectations. We now know that teacher contracts excusing teachers from reporting-in when schools are closed are a big and often unacknowledged factor. That was made abundantly clear when, in late November 2021, New Brunswick Education reversed its position on eliminating snow days.

When pressed by local media for an explanation, Education Department official Flavio Nienow came clean. Schools will continue to be closed on bad weather days, he said, because “in line with collective agreements, teachers are not required to report to work when schools are closed due to inclement weather.”

After all that’s happened and weeks of practice with remote learning, school districts are still clinging to past practice. While cancelling the odd day is understandable in larger cities where snow day cancellations number from 3 to 5 a year, it’s harder to justify cancelling school repeatedly when the lost teaching days accumulate and claims from one week to three weeks of instructional time.

Time will tell whether the pandemic will have achieved what educational policy-makers failed to accomplish – putting an end to the discharging of students and staff on inclement weather days.

What is the common and popular rationale for calling “snow days” without providing alternative learning programs? Why are school snow days still being called after two years of practice transitioning back and forth from in-person to online learning?  Is it a matter of ingrained attitudes or impediments in the form of teacher contracts? What is the most viable solution to minimize the erosion of valuable instructional time?

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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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School days lost to winter storms and other calamities is back on the public agenda, particularly in Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States. It broke into the open only when the numbers of lost days were approaching two full weeks of school. After shrugging off the issue for years, a couple of Canadian Ministers of Education suddenly went into a panicky, reactive mode. All of a sudden, recovering “lost learning time” became a priority.

SchoolClosureLogoCCRSBA succession of severe snow and ice storms in late February 2015 finally spurred that intervention.  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, 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 lost days. It caused such a furor that Premier Stephen McNeil was forced to intervene, assuring worried parents that the province was not going to commandeer their upcoming holidays.

Since a Nova Scotia Snow Days report by Dr. Jim Gunn in November 2009, five years ago, many concerned parents and citizens were asking –what’s really changed? Aside from minor policy adjustments and clearer communications, very little had happened to address the fundamental issue – the erosion of learning time and its impact on both student engagement and achievement.

Compared to Nova Scotia and the neighbouring Maritime provinces, American state governments and school districts have done much better. Transforming School Snow Days into E-Learning Days opened the door to what are known as “Blizzard Bags.” With a storm approaching, teachers are prepared with class-based homework assignments, inserted in special bags, to ensure continuity in teaching and learning.

Last winter, one of the most severe ever, Nova Scotia school boards cancelled between 5 and 15 full days, the highest numbers since 2008-09. So far this season, the number of “lost days” totals from 5 in Halifax to 11 in Cape Breton, with a month of winter still ahead of us.

Connecting the dots leads to one inescapable conclusion: Students in Nova Scotia, as well as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, would be doing better if they actually spent more time in school and were expected to complete work now being “written-off” in our public schools. Cancelling whole school days for real or threatened severe weather, then allowing between 12 and 16 days to be consumed by “Teacher Days” for professional activities was only compounding the student performance challenges.

No school system anywhere can be competitive when students are only in school for 165 to 175 of the scheduled 180 to 182 instructional days. Over the past five years, students outside of Halifax have actually missed 40 to 55 full days of school as a direct result of storm closures, double that of those in the HRSB, putting them at a real disadvantage compared to city kids.  The pattern was similar in both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

Raising such critical matters is no longer about finding fault, but rather about appealing for constructive policy changes to alleviate or minimize student learning loss in relation to other provinces and states. If “E-Learning Days” cannot be implemented because of the uneven state of Internet and home computer access, simply shrugging it off is no longer tenable.

The American ‘Snow-Belt’ states are way ahead of Maritimers in tackling the problem of repeated school day cancellations. Confronted with the problem, good old “Yankee ingenuity” sprouted up in Ohio, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Creative solutions are now appearing in the Greater Boston area, where school superintendents have stepped up to meet the challenge.

The state of Ohio was first out of the gate. Five school days a year were designated “Calamity Days” to accommodate storms, power outages, tornadoes, and local events, including fires, roof leaks, and boiler problems. Lost days, above 3 days, then later 5, were re-claimed by alternative means, including E-Days, replacing PD days or adding ‘make-up’ days at the end of term.

E-Learning Days emerged over the past five years as a popular alternative, employed in some 200 Ohio schools, mostly in rural and remote school districts. Given the choice between providing E-Learning activities during Snow Days and giving up PD or holiday time, teachers warmed to the concept and it was incorporated into the school’s curricular program.

The wintry blast of 2014 wreaked havoc in the state school system and ultimately claimed the Calamity Days model. When school day cancellations exceeded nine days, Ohio schools were unable to guarantee the mandated minimum of 180 days without pushing the school year into the final exam period. In September 2014, Ohio shifted from mandating school days to setting minimum annual hours of instruction, specifying 910 hours of instruction for K-6 and 1,001 hours for 7-12, and permitting more flexibility in implementing replacement days.

BlizzardBagsOhio’s Calamity Days were ahead of the curve and states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine have taken different approaches. In the Greater Boston area, Burlington City Schools, are now leading the way – providing students with Blizzard Bags and the option of completing work online or in traditional fashion.

Building and developing an effective Snow Days Alternative program is not easy, but Burlington Public Schools are proving that it can be done. Assistant Superintendent Patrick M. Larkin was “underwhelmed” with Blizzard Bags from a cross-section of Ohio schools that were stuffed with worksheets and rather mundane homework assignments. Working with teachers, Larkin has ensured that Blizzard Bags are now being filled with more challenging assignments requiring independent thinking, collaboration, digital learning, peer feedback and teacher guidance.

Whether schools are open or not, student learning should not be suspended for days on end. Let’s at least bring back those homework pouches. Giving them a fancy name like “Blizzard Bag” might even help schools to get started on the task of weaning today’s kids off Netflix and video games

What’s standing in the way of re-claiming lost School Snow Days?  Should provincial and state education authorities establish a minimum number of days when students will actually be in the classroom?  If so, what type of  a school calendar and schedule would be best for conserving and protecting instructional time? Where have school districts actually succeeded in limiting the erosion of student learning time?

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