School days lost to storms and other calamities are mounting and, predictably, it’s back on the public agenda.
Since Jim Gunn’s Nova Scotia Snow Days report in November 2009, five years ago, what’s really changed? Aside from minor policy adjustments and clearer communications, very little to address the fundamental issue — the erosion of learning time and its impact on both student engagement and achievement.
Compared to Nova Scotia and our neighbouring provinces, American state governments and school districts have done much better. Transforming school snow days into e-learning days opened the door to what are known as “blizzard bags.” With a storm approaching, teachers are prepared with class-based homework assignments, inserted in special bags, to ensure continuity in teaching and learning.
Last winter, one of the most severe ever, Nova Scotia school boards cancelled between five and 15 full days, the highest numbers since 2008-09. So far this season, the number of “lost days” totals from five in Halifax to nine in Cape Breton, with a month of winter still ahead of us.
Connecting the dots leads to one inescapable conclusion: Students in Nova Scotia, as well as New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, would be doing better if they actually spent more time in school and were expected to complete work now being “written off” in our public schools.
Cancelling school days for real or threatened severe weather, then allowing between 12 and 16 days to be consumed by “teacher days” for professional activities, is only compounding our student performance challenges.
No school system anywhere can be competitive when students are only in school for 165 to 175 of the scheduled 180 to 182 instructional days. Over the past five years, students outside of Halifax have actually missed 40 to 55 full days of school as a direct result of storm closures, double that of those in the Halifax regional school board, putting them at a real disadvantage compared to city kids.
Raising such critical matters is no longer about finding fault, but rather about appealing for constructive policy changes to alleviate or minimize student learning loss in relation to other provinces and states. If “e-learning days” cannot be implemented because of the uneven state of Internet and home computer access, simply shrugging it off is no longer tenable.
The American “snow-belt” states are way ahead of us in tackling the problem of repeated school day cancellations. Confronted with the problem, good old “Yankee ingenuity” sprouted up in Ohio, Minnesota and New Hampshire. Creative solutions are now appearing in the Greater Boston area, where school superintendents have stepped up to meet the challenge.
The state of Ohio was first out of the gate. Five school days a year were designated “calamity days” to accommodate storms, power outages, tornadoes, and local events, including fires, roof leaks, and boiler problems. Lost days, above three days, then later five, were reclaimed by alternative means, including e-days, replacing professional development days or adding “make-up” days at the end of term.
E-learning days emerged over the past five years as a popular alternative, employed in some 200 Ohio schools, mostly in rural and remote school districts. Given the choice between providing e-learning activities during snow days and giving up PD or holiday time, teachers warmed to the concept and it was incorporated into the school’s curricular program.
The wintry blast of 2014 wreaked havoc in the state school system and ultimately claimed the calamity days model. When school day cancellations exceeded nine days, Ohio schools were unable to guarantee the mandated minimum of 180 days without pushing the school year into the final exam period.
In September 2014, Ohio shifted from mandating school days to setting minimum annual hours of instruction, specifying 910 hours of instruction for K-6 and 1,001 hours for 7-12, and permitting more flexibility in implementing replacement days.
Ohio’s calamity days were ahead of the curve and states like Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine have taken different approaches. In the Greater Boston area, Burlington city schools are now leading the way — providing students with blizzard bags and the option of completing work online or in traditional fashion.
Building and developing an effective snow days alternative program is not easy, but Burlington public schools are proving that it can be done. Assistant Superintendent Patrick M. Larkin was “underwhelmed” with blizzard bags from a cross-section of Ohio schools that were stuffed with worksheets and rather mundane homework assignments.
Working with teachers, Larkin has ensured that blizzard bags are now being filled with more challenging assignments requiring independent thinking, collaboration, digital learning, peer feedback and teacher guidance.
Whether schools are open or not, student learning should not be suspended for days on end. It’s time for Nova Scotia to do what it does best — move forward, cautiously, learning from the mistakes of those early adopters.
Bring back those homework pouches with a fancy name like “blizzard bag” and get started on the task of weaning today’s kids off Netflix and video games.
Paul W. Bennett is the author of School’s Out, Again — a 2010 AIMS research paper calling for a plan to reduce “throw-away” snow days
*This opinion piece appeared in the Chronicle Herald, the Guardian, and the Telegraph Journal