By Dr. Paul W. Bennett (AIMS Author)

Talk about the inordinate number of school snow days in the Maritimes never seems to go away. The current school year, it turned out, reflected the “new normal” in Nova Scotia with between five and 14 days lost to storm closures. Yet a fierce public debate continues to flare up, almost like clockwork, every time the Maritime region experiences a run of school day closures disrupting the lives of families, interrupting student learning and affecting the workplace.

Over the past decade, in spite of all that talk, little has really changed and, in some cases, the problem has actually worsened. That’s the conclusion of my latest research report: Missing in Action: School Storm Days, Student Absenteeism and the Workplace.

Almost ten years ago, two policy research papers, James Gunn’s December 2009 Discussion Paper, Storm Days in Nova Scotia, and my April 2010 AIMS research commentary, Schools Out, Again, documented the problem and demonstrated that Nova Scotia and the Maritimes were out-of-line are when it comes to cancelling school for all sorts of reasons, mainly but not exclusively related to inclement weather.

Instructional time lost through storm day cancellations is a serious problem, adversely affecting student learning, when more than two weeks of school are lost through cancellations. Since the previous record setting year, 2008-09, Nova Scotia schools outside Halifax regularly exceed that threshold, averaging more than 10 days lost per year, almost double the number from the previous decade. 

Storm day closures and student absenteeism are intertwined and need to be considered pieces of the puzzle. Leading researcher Dave E. Marcotte and his University of Maryland research collaborators have documented the detrimental effect of weather-related school closures on math and reading results in Maryland elementary schools.

Based upon research from 2003 to 2010 in Massachusetts, where school storm days average three to five a year, Joshua Goodman of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found planned disruptions like school day cancellations have less impact than the disruptive effects of student absences during periods of heavy snowfall.

Organizing students to ensure effective instruction is difficult when large numbers of students are missing because of bad weather. Forecasted rates of student absenteeism do need to be taken into consideration. Having said that, repeated and multiple school day cancellations such as those in Nova Scotia have a cumulative impact, especially on weaker students who can least afford missing whole days of school.

Student absenteeism also contributes to the achievement gap affecting students from disadvantaged households. One 2015 study of student absences in North Carolina elementary schools provides ample evidence of the impact. While only one per cent of the achievement gap was directly attributable to differential rates of absenteeism, reducing low-income student absences by 10 days per year, relative to better off students, would reduce the achievement gap by five to 10 per cent. Missing school days, whatever the reason, only contributes to those inequities.

In the case of Nova Scotia, cancelling school days only compounds the existing problem of chronic student absenteeism, affecting one in four students. Some 37 per cent of middle school and 32 per cent of high school students in 2014-15 missed more than 16 days school because of absenteeism. Losing an average of another ten days to storms makes matters worse. It is difficult enough for many students to get to school even without the regular interruption of school storm days.

Unplanned school closures announced in the early morning can and do have unintended consequences. Families are left scrambling to rearrange their day and, where both parents work outside the home, to find safe and reliable day care for younger children. Working parents employed on contract or in hourly-wage service sectors can suffer lost pay by missing work and cannot stay home repeatedly, particularly in small enterprises or non-unionized workplaces.

School closure policies, my report points out, has a ripple effect on the workplace and makes largely unexamined impacts on labour productivity.

It’s time to move from talk to corrective action. The research paper calls on the province, the teachers’ union and district administrators to embrace a new, province-wide policy with four key elements:

  • a provincial guarantee to students and parents of a minimum number of instructional days (i.e. 180 days of actual instruction) each school year;
  • a flexible school year calendar with provision for make-up instructional days, including the substitution for professional development days and the option of adding days at the end of the year; 
  • completion of the Rural Broadband expansion and introducing e-learning days during periods of severe weather and dangerous roads;
  • a clear policy requiring the provision of student “homework bags” when storms are forecast to bridge the gaps and ensure continuity in learning; and
  • a more comprehensive, detailed study of the disruptive effects of school day interruptions, planned and unplanned, on productivity in the workplace.

Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D, is Director of Schoolhouse Institute, Halifax, and author of the new policy research paper “Missing in Action: School Storm Days, Student Absenteeism and the Workplace,” published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.