Too many lost school days can have a disruptive effect upon student learning.

SCHOOL DAYS lost are gone forever. Missing a major chunk of the school year because of storm-day closures can wreak havoc on students. Cancelling whole days of classes erodes valuable teaching time, breaks continuity, divides board employee groups, and often disrupts preparation for tests and examinations.

That is why the vast majority of Canadian school boards resist the temptation to cancel school and give kids “the day off” at the first sign of inclement weather or unexpected school heating/ventilation problems.

Yet in the Maritimes, it is different. Storm-day closures are a regular occurrence and the unique phenomenon of “throw-away” school days are now a deeply ingrained tradition. Student safety on the roads, we are told, always trumps other factors in the Atlantic region. Closing schools is strictly a local matter best left to the school boards, and rarely raised as a matter warranting provincial intervention.

During this year’s unseasonably warm winter, schools were again closed at the first sign of snow and, on March 3, Parker Donham, The Contrarian, created a minor furor by calling us “fraidy cats” and speculating about the influence of unions.

A new study of the impact of “throw-away school days” in Nova Scotia and neighbouring Maritime provinces, conducted for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), connects the dots. It demonstrates that the high incidence of such disruptions can exact “collateral damage” on students as well as the public school system.

Previous studies have focused on “school snow days” decision-making and operational issues and made no attempt to connect lost days with either the quality of classroom learning or levels of student performance.

When the number of school days lost in Nova Scotia is compared with provincial student test results on a board-by-board basis, the impact is clear. Missing so many school days hurts students, and this result falls unevenly on rural school districts and on Grade 12 graduating students.

When surveying the student assessment results for Grade 12 mathematics (June 2009), red flags go up.

Regular Grade 12 mathematics exam pass rates dropped six per cent provincewide. The Nova Scotia boards with the most lost school days generally recorded the lowest Grade 12 mathematics exam pass rates, over the three year period 2007 to 2009. The Halifax district school board also reported a drop from a 58 per cent pass rate to 42 per cent last June, after missing a record 7.5 days.

Such dismal mathematics results not only raise serious questions about the direct impact of the lost days, but warrant a fuller, provincewide review.

After an incredibly mild winter, it’s easy to forget that we set a Canadian record in 2008-09 for interrupted education. By April 2009, Nova Scotia’s regional school boards, outside of Halifax, had cancelled classes for 11 to 14 days, representing more than two weeks of lost instructional time.

Many high school classes across Nova Scotia also reportedly fell short of the minimum credit-course requirement of 110 hours of instruction per year. That lost teaching time was never recovered, and simply written off by school officials.

Nova Scotia high schools, according to a 2009 student absenteeism report, already have a serious and growing problem with school attendance. Combining the school closures with the identified rates of absenteeism, about one out of 10 high school students in 2008-09 likely missed 25 per cent of their originally scheduled classes, and an astounding 45 per cent were away for 15 per cent of the classes. Giving such students so many “days off” only compounds that problem.

Repeatedly cancelling school days has a disruptive effect upon student learning and family life. It’s time for provincial action to require a minimum number of actual teaching days (185), to mandate lost day recovery plans, to provide greatly improved roadway snow clearing in school transportation zones, and to ensure that public schools remain open in all but the severest of weather.

Next year, when “school storm days” inevitably return, will be the real test. Let’s hope we have learned the lesson that simply “throwing away” large numbers of teaching days has consequences, for our kids and families.

‘Such dismal mathematics results not only raise serious questions about the direct impact of the lost days, but warrant a fuller, provincewide review.’

Paul W. Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting in Halifax, is the author of “School’s Out, Again: Why Throw-away Days Hurt Students”