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Weathering the Storm: Prepare for School Closings from Inclement Weather

Jan 07 2016

There are few phrases that make kids as giddy as “It’s a snow day!” But for educators? Usually not so much. Especially those tasked with the grueling decision of whether to close schools or not.

To cancel or not to cancel: that is the (big) question

Superintendents know the stress of making the call for a late start or school closure. A wrong call — either way — and, well, you look like a flake.

A big piece of it is the timing,” says Dr. Joseph Roy, the superintendent of Bethlehem Area School District, a large public school system in Pennsylvania. He told TIME, “[Last winter was] tough because it was a lot of daytime snow. If you know it’s going to snow a few inches throughout the school day, I’m more likely to cancel it. Buses don’t do well in snow, so I monitor the amount predicted, the fall and the timing.”

And while school districts typically err on the side of caution, an unnecessary school cancellation can irk parents who may have to take an unscheduled day off work, spending their snow day listening to “Let It Go” on continuous loop.

But while parents may fear for their sanity, they don’t need to worry so much about their kids’ education: A study conducted by Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Joshua Goodman found little impact on student learning from snow days. In fact, he finds, keeping schools open during a winter storm is more detrimental to learning than a school closure.

"They need to consider the downside when deciding NOT to declare a snow day during a storm — the fact that many kids will miss school regardless either because of transportation issues or parental discretion. And because those absences typically aren't made up in the school calendar, those kids can fall behind."

Work or play?

Most school districts have several “snow days” baked into their schedules. But when faced with historic blizzards as bedeviled the northeast last year, there’s the question of what kids should do on their “day off.” Here are some best practices from other educators:

1. Prepare in advance: If they’re expecting a snow day, teachers can prepare assignments in advance and offer ways for students to get help online — through Khan Academy, for example.

Some schools have formalized the practice and have designated “blizzard bags” — assignments posted online or sent home that schools can count as a full day of instruction. A science lesson, for example, might have younger students making snowballs to bring inside and record observations as they watch them melt under different circumstances.

2. Use e-learning: Some school districts are essentially making snow days a thing of the past. In Pennsylvania, for example, the state's 501 school districts have the option to use "nontraditional educational delivery methods," such as cyber school, in order to keep kids learning during winter storms. 

Think that sounds Grinchy? "It's much better to have a day of e-learning instruction right now than if we held a makeup day when the weather's nice," says Shelly Vaughn, the superintendent of the 939-student Fort Recovery district in western Ohio. "It's hard to keep kids focused at that time of year.”

In addition, the older the students are, the less flexibility they have. "When you teach an Advanced Placement class, there's a target day in May when everyone takes the test," says Nancy Triezenberg, co-teacher of an AP calculus class at Grandville High School in Grandville, Mich. She posts assignments and instructional videos online to keep students on track.

3. Let them play: For some schools, especially in more temperate climates where the flakes fly only once or twice a year, a snow day is a much-needed opportunity to recharge batteries. “We work really hard when we are in class, so I enjoy the day off and hope my students are doing the same," says Andria Doblie, who teaches career education at Oregon City High School in Oregon City, Ore.


Cathie Ericson is a freelance writer covering business and consumer topics. She creates branded content for Fortune 500 companies, and her work has appeared on LearnVest, Costco Magazine, Forbes, and IDEA Fitness. Follow her @cathieericson.

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