Snow Days: Creating Distance-Learning Opportunities
By Meagan Gillmore
Snow days are routine for many teachers; some school calendars are planned with the assumption students will miss class because of bad weather.
But school closures, especially lengthy ones, may cause some teachers to worry if lost time will keep them from completing curriculum or put students at a disadvantage when writing standardized tests.
Many schools prepare by creating distance learning opportunities to ensure class continues even when bad weather closes school buildings.
In New Hampshire for example, (a state that is no stranger to stormy Nor’easters), several school districts have adopted Blizzard Bag days. Students work from home when schools are closed because of bad weather. They access lessons online; students who don’t have Internet access are provided with paper materials. The days aren’t wasted time. Schools need to submit a plan to the department of education requesting how many Blizzard Bag days they’d like (the maximum is five per school year), and provide details about how they plan to deliver lessons on those days. Department of Education guidelines say the schoolwork assigned “must be equivalent in effort and rigor to typical classroom work.” At least 80 percent of students must participate for a day to be an approved school day.
Similar programs exist in regions not necessarily known for colder weather, like Kentucky. School districts across the state have introduced Non-Traditional Instruction (NTI) days for the past few years. They’re similar to Blizzard Bags days. When the forecast predicts bad weather, districts decide if the next day will be an NTI day. On the NTI day, students get lessons through the school websites or use paper materials if they don’t have access to the Internet. Teachers contact the students during the day to offer assistance, if needed. More than 70 of the state’s 173 districts participate in the program.
It’s especially important in rural areas where cities may not have enough snow ploughs to remove snow from roads, said Carla Whitis, assistant superintendent at Graves County School District in southwestern Kentucky. Geographically, it’s one of the state’s largest school districts and many students live on rural roads that may be unsafe for buses to travel on after storms.
Graves County began offering NTI days during the 2015-2016 school year. The district used six that year; the maximum is 10. NTI days means students won’t have to attend school later into the summer to make up for days lost in a harsh winter. It also means they won’t have gaps in their learning when they return to school after snow days. A few years ago, the district lost 18 days because of bad weather, said Whitis. NTI days mean students don’t have to adjust to the classroom once they return to school. “We’re able to keep what they’re learning in school fresh on their minds,” said Whitis.
Students complete review assignments during those days; no new material is introduced. The work is supposed to take about three hours for students to complete. Whitis said that’s comparable to the amount of time students spend on schoolwork in the classroom. Students have up to three days to hand in the assignments after the NTI day. The district ranked as one of the top districts in the state at the end of 2015-2016 year, said Whitis, coming in at 28. “We don’t think that it had a negative impact,” she said. If students’ scores had decreased after the year, the district would have “definitely” considered if NTI days had had a negative influence on the students, said Whitis.
Reaction from parents, teachers and students was mainly positive, she said. Some parents noted on feedback surveys that they enjoyed getting to see more of what their children learn at school. Preparation was key to the success, said Whitis. Students practiced accessing the assignments online at school. The district also did surveys to see who would need paper copies of the schoolwork. “Everyone was involved in the process,” said Whitis.
That’s not to say there weren’t some challenges. Some students couldn’t access the assignments on certain devices. Others had limited access to devices because parents needed to use their computers to work from home, or there weren’t enough devices for all the children in a household to access the material at the same time. These are lessons the district will keep in mind as it prepares for future NTI days, Whitis said.
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance writer in Toronto, ON.