Could remote-learning make snow days obsolete?

It’s a conversation that has been making the rounds among educators and administrators as school districts around the state gear up for a fall where remote instruction will figure prominently into many education plans.

Last week, Bryan Olkowski, superintendent of the Washington Central Supervisory Union, floated the idea at a School Board meeting.

“I kind of said it lightheartedly when I mentioned it in board meeting, but it could be a real possibility.” Olkowski said this week.

To be sure, many districts should be able to nimbly make the switch to remote this fall, but will schools retain that muscle memory post-pandemic? Making a successful pivot to remote learning with less than a day’s notice would require current infrastructure and protocols to remain in place moving forward. Without them, the switch might create more headaches than it’s worth.

According to state statute, schools must be open for a minimum of 175 days, though some districts go longer.

Ted Fisher, director of communications for the agency of education, said the agency hasn’t “given much thought to snow days at this point in the calendar.”

Fisher explained that schools currently have a waiver of regulation that allows them to “count” students learning remotely for attendance purposes during the pandemic. He said a school could opt to switch to remote learning due to inclement weather “as long as the emergency approach is in effect.”

He said it may be “technically possible” to eliminate snow days via remote learning, but a more permanent approach would require further consideration.

“Absent such a change — post COVID-19 — the kids should get their snow day, otherwise the school would need to mark them absent.”

David Younce, president of Vermont Superintendents Association, said he hasn’t heard any formal conversations at the state level, but called the idea “common sense commentary.”

“The ability to work and learn from home is going to become more and more normalized, I suspect,” Younce said. “I think that makes it much easier to make a decision”

Younce is superintendent of Mill River Unified Union School District, which is opening with an entirely remote-learning plan for grades K-12 until at least November.

“I suspect that the infrastructure that we created in an emergency realm in March — that everybody’s working to refine now — I do think some of those things are going to be kept around as actual good advancements, “ Younce said.

He, however, was quick to qualify that any decisions to shift to remote learning for inclement weather should be made in advance — for example, by noon the day before — to provide time for teachers, students and families to plan accordingly.

Bill Olsen, superintendent at Rutland City Public Schools, said the district has been researching the idea and indicated that he is open to taking snow days remote.

At RCPS this fall, grades K-9 will be in-person five days a week. Grades 10-12 will be on a hybrid schedule alternating remote and in-person days. All students have the option to go fully remote.

“I don’t think it would be hard pivot because … most teachers are providing things online to kids everyday anyway,” Olsen said.

At Slate Valley Unified School District, Superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell said the idea has come up in conversations. She thinks it “has some merit.”

Slate Valley will be reopening for in-person instruction five days a week in grades K-8. Grade 9-12 will follow an alternating hybrid schedule.

“Even though we’re in person, we’re definitely building up our internal systems and structures to be able to pivot easily to a remote-learning option,” she said, adding that SVUSD is a one-to-one district, which means it provides a laptop computer to every student.

Olsen-Farrell said no “definite decision” has been made, but she plans to discuss it with the School Board at its September meeting.

But while some school officials may be eager to eliminate snow days to maintain continuity of education and a tidy calendar, a study published in 2014 by Harvard professor Joshua Goodman suggests snow days have no detrimental impact on student learning.

“With slack time in the schedule, the time lost to closure can be regained,” Goodman wrote. “Student absences, however, force teachers to expend time getting students on the same page as their classmates.”

Don Tinney, president of the Vermont-NEA, which represents more than 13,000 educators and school workers throughout the state, agreed.

“You don’t see this sort of learning loss when everyone’s missing,” he said. “What the problem is, is some students arrive to school and others have to stay home. Those who stay home are missing what the instruction is, what the experience is at school that day.”

Tinney said that problem translates to remote-learning.

“I think our concerns with that approach are the same concerns we have with the inequities that were accentuated when we moved to remote learning in the spring,” he said, explaining that at-home situations are not the same for all students, and that those situations can create disparities in access to technology, broadband and supportive learning environments.

“We haven’t reached a place of true equity when it comes to remote learning,” he said.

Given the remote infrastructures already in place in many districts this fall, Tinney acknowledged that some may experiment with eliminating snow days. He said he doesn’t see a problem if all students have equal access to resources.

“They better make sure that all students have a device and then have access because, if not, what they’re saying is, ‘It’s OK for some students to miss this opportunity,’” he said.

For all the talk about how snow days could be eliminated, there has been just as much talk about whether they should be at all.

“How it would be received would be a whole other story,” Olkowski said, noting that some families look forward to snow days as a perk of going to school in Vermont.

Tinney echoed that sentiment.

“It’s a celebration of winter,” he said. “It’s something that we would lose. Now, it’s not a major crisis, obviously, but I do think it has become part of our culture.”

Yet Tinney acknowledged that not all families consider an unexpected day off a gift.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic laid bare the state’s child care deficiencies, snow days were already a challenge for many working families.

“It’s a real scramble for parents on a snow day,” he said.

Christina Sweet is a mother of two school-aged children who attend Christ the King School in Rutland.

Sweet said she has fond memories of snow days from her childhood, noting that she was fortunate to have a mother who was able to stay home with her. Sweet said she is also lucky that she works in local schools and is still able to take snow days off with her children.

“I kind of have mixed feelings,” she said of the possibility that they might go away.

That said, Sweet liked the idea of not making up missed days at the end of the school year.

She said she thinks her kids would be “bummed” about not getting snow days anymore, but said remote-learning days still allow for outdoor time, so getting a few runs in on the sled are not out of the question.

Like Tinney, Sweet also acknowledged the inequities that exist around access to technology and child care.

“We just want to make sure that we’re not leaving anybody out of something important,” she said.

Despite instigating the conversation, Olkowski acknowledged that snow days are not top of mind among he and other administrators at the moment.

“Right now, our focus is really on the reopening of schools, and making sure teachers and students and staff are all ready to go,” he said.

jim.sabataso

@rutlandherald.com

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