Closing schools at the first sign of a coming snowstorm is, it seems, an ingrained Maritime tradition.
So is turning on the morning radio or TV bright and early in eager anticipation of the predictable announcement. The CBC Storm Centre list makes it official: “School’s out again.”
Now comes news from the American “snow belt” states that the storm day itself may be threatened by, of all things, the gradual advance of 21st century e-learning.
Already, U.S. school districts from Pittsburgh, Pa., to Westerville City, Ohio, to Trimble County, Ky. are beginning to take full advantage of the Internet to convert snow days into cyber-learning days.
While Nova Scotia school boards continue to declare snow days, idling the province’s 120,000 students and 9,400 teachers, a viable alternative to cancelling school days is slowly emerging, south of the border.
Since August of 2011, the State of Ohio has authorized school districts to develop “e-day plans” for storm days, implementing them once five days have been lost in the school year. It’s a very ingenious response to the significant loss of student learning time.
School snow days are back with a vengeance in the current school year. So far in 2013-14, Nova Scotian students have already lost from three to 9.5 full school days, depending upon the school board, mostly as a result of storm cancellations.
Two of the regional boards, Chignecto-Central (CCRSB) and Annapolis Valley (AVRSB), are on pace to break the previous record of 14 lost days, set during the 2008-09 school year.
Five years ago, the high incidence of school cancellations sparked a provincewide debate. Jim Gunn’s storm days report (December 2009) documented the extent of the problem and recommended a number of operational changes to minimize the impact upon the system.
My own April 2010 policy report for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) compared school days lost in boards across Canada and contended that the number of days lost in 2008-09 hurt student performance, particularly on the June 2009 Grade 12 mathematics exams.
A few minor policy adjustments have been implemented since then. Schools in the Halifax regional board are, as a result of David Cameron’s 2011 board motion, now closed more often by families of schools, conserving time lost in walkable city school zones.
The CCRSB has also attempted to be more flexible, not always closing across the board. In the South Shore school board, a “back roads closure plan” has been implemented, keeping school buses operating on snowy days and allowing more schools to stay open.
School days are still being written off by system administrators and school principals and the Education Department continues to take a laissez-faire approach. Working parents and concerned community members who raise any objections are treated as “kill-joys” or chastised for their lack of concern for child safety on hazardous roads. Why worry? some say. Enjoy the family time and be happy.
Why are the three Maritime provinces so out of sync with other Canadian school systems and most American states? School boards in Calgary, Winnipeg, south central Ontario and the Quebec Eastern Townships all experience brutal storms and heavy snow, but rarely, if ever, close their schools.
School officials in Calgary, Winnipeg, and York Region maintain that students are safer in school and in buses rather than cars.
What changed the dynamic in the American snow belt states? Political and business leadership was critical. State governors and school commissioners, at the urging of business employers, responded to public concerns when school was cancelled repeatedly, disrupting working families and affecting productivity levels in the plant or business office.
How did it happen? Concerned parents pressed state governors and legislators to take action to stop the erosion of instructional time. School districts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Wheeling, West Virginia, and rural Kentucky sought to eliminate the lost days entirely by introducing make-up school days in place of professional development days or at the end of the term.
The best solution came out of Ohio. After five days lost, school districts were authorized to institute either “e-lesson days” or to provide make-up days to guarantee a minimum number of instructional days each year.
Faced with those options, some 86 Ohio schools have now registered to offer e-days during school storm closures. On those days, teachers go online at 10 a.m. and provide lessons online until 5 p.m., providing a full day of online learning.
E-days do work best in digital-learning, networked lap-top schools, but surprising numbers of schools rely solely on school-to-home computer connections. Since most of today’s homes have networked home computers or mobile devices, more students report in than on some regular school days.
Turning disposable storm days into e-learning days is clearly the wave of the present as well as the future. It’s time to get serious about moving forward with 21st century learning and to tackle the problem of throw-away school days.
Paul W. Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting and adjunct professor of Education, Saint Mary’s University, is the author of the April 2010 AIMS research report, School’s Out, Again
*This piece appeared in the 7 February 2014 opinion section of the Chronicle Herald