Until two weeks ago we had not yet had any snow days, but in the last eleven days we’ve had three, plus a two hour delay. It’s impossible also not to mention class time lost for testing and an activity period, all of which means that in the last eight “school days,” I have seen one particular class for only three periods, and two others only twice. I have had to alter some assignment due dates more than once to adjust for all the missed class time; of course I have no control over it and I promised last week not to be crabby about it. But teachers all over the region are unhappy with the ground that’s been lost. Time away from school causes kids to forget information they may have been on the cusp of learning, and at the very least it causes a significant interruption of the momentum that’s critical to student learning.
But one New Hampshire school district has made a move that might be the harbinger of change. Students were given “blizzard bags,” which contain assignments to be worked on in cases of snow days. The idea is that students spend a certain amount of time on this work when they are out of school because of snow, and in turn the days count as “traditional” school days, thereby eliminating the loss of time on the school calendar. They can use these plans for up to three snow days during the year.
For readers who may not understand the snow day system, here’s how it works. If school is cancelled due to inclement weather (seldom anything other than snow or ice storms), it is time lost, so another day is added to the school calendar at the end of the year. Students attend school for 180 days, and any day when there is no school extends the time until we finish in the spring, which in some cases has caused us still to be in school until June 28th or so. Summer vacation time is not extended, of course, so some years that “long” vacation is significantly shortened.
When I first heard about the Kearsarge blizzard bag plan, I didn’t know what to think, and it didn’t make sense to me. I imagined it as just a collection of random worksheets that would amount to “busywork” and would not contribute to the actual coursework done in class. I was wrong; now that I’ve looked at the district’s website and seen the actual information about it, I’m impressed. Teachers are receiving professional development in order to construct appropriate lessons, and there is an online component that enables students and teachers to communicate, thereby giving students a chance to get help or ask questions. All subject areas are included, even Phys Ed, Music, Art, and Health. This is the second year of their program, and the district is seeking feedback from parents, teachers, and students that will help not only in improving the model, but also in recording data about whether the student was sick or could not complete the work for other reasons.
As everyone reeled this week from the impact of our third no school day, Facebook chatter among teachers and parents revealed a range of frustration, sarcasm, and joy. One thought provoking conversation that I engaged in, though, was about the potential of the blizzard bag plan, and other similar ideas, in changing the face of how school districts are able to deal with the management of instruction during inclement weather.
There are many different models now in use that provide home-to-school learning. Colleges and universities are doing much in this area, and in New Hampshire we have a free charter middle school/high school that is 100% online, so they have no snow days no matter the weather. VLACS has been in existence only about three years, and it is growing exponentially. But local public schools are a different kind of beast, and there is a lot more to consider than what kind of technology would make the home-to-school connection possible for public school children.
That’s one thing I like about the Kearsarge program. It’s not a requirement for students to connect with their teachers online, so there is no penalty for any student whose family does not have a computer or online capability, and that, I think, is key to success of the program. Public schools must consider students from all backgrounds and economic situations, and while the technology component is an exciting possibility, the reality is that we have to face reality. Still, I can sense the edge of change coming around the corner. No one likes being in school until the very end of June, and this first plan to control what has always been uncontrollable is a wonderful change to our very traditional and very open-ended school year calendar. Bring it on!