Schooling and Snow Days

North America is in the middle of a particularly rough winter. February was Toronto’s coldest month on record, with temperatures never getting above freezing. Buffalo, Syracuse, Binghamton, and Ithaca, New York also had record-setting cold weather in February. Providence, Rhode Island had 31.8 inches of snow, breaking the old record for the month. Boston had 64.8 inches and is on track to have had the snowiest winter ever. And it’s not just the Northeast. Cities in the south have experienced snow and ice as well – in Texas, for example, and in Tennessee.

This, no surprise, has prompted a lot of school closures.

There is no national policy or set of guidelines in the US for when schools should close. Instead individual district and school policies and administrators get to dictate what conditions prompt a school closure: freezing temperatures, high winds, National Weather Service warnings, impassable roads, the availability of public transportation and school buses, the heating systems of school buildings, and so on.

But even if there are specific policies in place, there’s often uncertainty and the wait – for parents, students, teachers, and staff – to hear the official word: Has school been cancelled?

“Snow days” have always been a challenge for parents, particularly if they are still supposed to get to work. Arranging for last minute childcare is never easy, especially when the weather is bad. No school can also mean no hot lunch for lots of children.

It’s easy to imagine that the news that there’s “no school today!!” is met with joy by students. (And certainly, in many cases, it is – something that should tell us a lot about what students think about school.) But much like Kris Schaffer’s recent argument that “homework is a social justice issue,” we should recognize too that not all students experience either “school” or “home” the same way.

This should give us pause when we see the push for more programs such as the one described by Emily Richmond in a recent article in The Atlantic: “Are iPads the Solution to Snow Days?” She describes a pilot program for “flexible learning time” in Farmington, Minnesota in which students work from home on their school-issued iPads. During a recent storm and school closure, “the teachers had uploaded their assignments by 10 a.m., and they spent the rest of the day interacting with students via the district’s Schoology digital platform.”

Richmond notes that this school district is small and affluent; less than 17% of its 7000 students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Nationwide, about half of all public school students do. 98% of the Farmington students have high-speed Internet access at home. Again, that’s much higher than the national average: about 70% of Americans have broadband at home.

Other school districts that have tried to implement ed-tech initiatives to handle snow days have run into problems, as many students still have neither computers nor Internet access at home. In December, the Associated Press reported on efforts in Kentucky, a state that ranks 46th out of 50 for access to high speed Internet, to replace snow days with online instruction. For students without computers: “prepared snow day work packets.”

Prepared snow day work packets.

Of course, if there are offline activities that students should be doing when school is cancelled – that is, if schools deem it necessary to dictate what students do on their snow days – then it hardly seems like “work packets” are the best or most interesting or innovative option. (This raises questions too if the online version in Kentucky is anything more than a digital work packet. Sadly, much of online instruction turns out to be precisely that.)

No doubt, there are pressures – policy requirements – to make sure students have enough “instructional time” over the course of the academic year. Too many snow days could mean having to extend the school year into the summer or to take away other vacation days. Perhaps the answers can, in part, be technological: expand access to computers to all students; expand access to the Internet to all homes.

But we still need to ask then: access to technology to what end? What are students expected to do with technology at home? Hopefully it’s something much more powerful and engaging and meaningful than “prepared snow day work packets.” Otherwise, why bother?

Image credits: John Talbot

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