Jan 27 2021

The Pros, Cons and Lessons Learned from Schools that Do Virtual Snow Days

During the pandemic, more K–12 school districts are opting to continue remote learning on inclement weather days

Traditional snow days — and the excitement they evoke as kids wait for that early morning call — could be going the way of the overhead slide projector once commonplace in school districts across the U.S.

A growing number of districts are shifting toward “e-learning” or virtual learning days rather than cancelling classes in the face of inclement weather. While some technological trendsetter districts have had such programs in place for years, the switch to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic has given many more districts a reason to try it out, experts say.

“When you talk about the snow day, as much as children enjoy it and love it, the reality is that most school districts that have developed the capacity to do remote learning now are basically saying that on an inclement weather day, they will go to a remote learning [plan],” said Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

A November survey by the EdWeek Research Center found that 39 percent of principals and district leaders converted snow days to remote learning days as a result of their experience with remote learning during the pandemic, and another 32 percent said they’re considering it, Education Week reported.

Individual districts in states where icy and snowy weather is common, including Connecticut, Massachusetts, Nebraska and Wisconsin, have moved to abolish or at least limit school snow days this year in favor of remote learning activities, USA Today reported. And the New York State Education Department started a one-year pilot program for 2020-21 that lets districts opt out of traditional weather-related closures in favor of a virtual learning day.

Lessons Learned During Year One of Virtual Learning

The state’s go-ahead, following months of remote learning during the pandemic, helped Mohonasen Central School District in Rotterdam, N.Y., roll out a virtual learning day plan that included distributing Chromebooks to all students and training teachers in digital instruction.

Implementing a virtual learning plan centered around an asynchronous flipped classroom setup was a longtime goal of the district, said Bill Vacca, Mohonasen’s director of instructional technology.

“People needed the push, and the pandemic was the push to getting everyone to the point where they’re at. I knew we had the potential, the capability, but sometimes we just need a little push,” he said.

When schools shut down last year, and teachers had to quickly pivot to online instruction, several lessons emerged that have helped them adapt virtual learning to snow days, Vacca said:

  • Maximize student engagement and avoid screen-time fatigue by limiting class time and offering office hours.
  • Review recent lessons rather than introducing new content.
  • Differentiate expectations for what students accomplish on inclement weather virtual learning days versus COVID-19 shutdown virtual learning days.

When the Pickens County School District in Easley, S.C., adopted virtual snow days in 2018, teachers found it challenging to adapt their instructional style and lesson plans, said Tim Johnson, who teaches business education and agriculture at Liberty High School. They also needed support to get comfortable using the district’s online learning platform, Schoology.

A few years later, teachers have mastered the platform and are focused on perfecting their lessons and finding new ways to increase student engagement.

One of the biggest hurdles early on was ensuring that all 16,000 students have a reliable at-home internet connection, Johnson said. The district currently provides hotspots for about 900 students who don’t have internet at home. Still, Pickens County School District spans 3,000 square miles in a mountainous region prone to tornadoes, snow and ice, and sometimes the power does go out. In those instances, he said, it’s important to be flexible and allow students to complete assignments later without penalty.

DISCOVER: Remote tech allows for virtual school on snow days.

Weighing the Trade-Offs for Teachers, Students and Communities

Not all districts that have the resources and the capacity to switch to virtual learning when bad weather blows in want to do so.

Highland Falls-Fort Montgomery Central School District in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley region is primed for a switch. It’s a one-to-one device district that’s been operating in a successful hybrid model this year, but staff there are approaching the idea cautiously. Such a change would require modifying the school calendar and potentially renegotiating the teachers’ contract, said Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, Instruction and Technology Andrea Tejedor.

Teachers are contractually obligated to work a certain number of days per year, and the school calendar already has snow days built into it. So, if a significant number of snow days pushes teaching days over the contractual limit, that could compel districts to reassess their budgets, Tejedor suggested

“You have to look at it from a systems perspective, from budgeting, from planning, from coordination with regional agencies, establishing expectations (about what the snow day learning looks like,” she said.

On the other hand, some superintendents would love to avoid the parental complaints that surface when spring break or summer vacation gets shaved down by a day or two to make up for snow days, said AASA’s Domenech.

Districts’ ability to deliver quality and timely professional development is key to making the decision on virtual snow days as well, experts said. It won’t work unless teachers have support with hardware, apps and troubleshooting to juggle it all smoothly in real time.

Another consideration: If your district is the only one in the region that expects students to be logged on while neighboring districts are closed, that can create confusion for parents and teachers who send their children to multiple districts. That was the case when the Mohonasen school district took advantage of the first big snowstorm of the year, in December, to do a trial run of its remote learning program, Vacca said.

In the long run, Vacca believes that the benefits of virtual learning days outweigh the pitfalls. Particularly at a time when learning loss among students has risen due to the pandemic, the opportunity for teachers to connect with their students daily supports continuity and retention, he said.

“The trade-off is you don’t get the same instruction that you would have had,” in a regular in-person school day, he said. But even an informal virtual snow day check-in with a teacher and a brief review of material taught earlier in the week can make a difference in what a student remembers when he or she eventually returns to school.

“That holistic approach we feel is much more important now than making sure that we have every single minute filled with instruction,” Vacca said.

MORE ON EDTECH: Educators and parents react to the new reality of learning.

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