In pre-pandemic winters, announcement of a major snow storm would be an occasion for youngsters to watch the forecast in hopes of receiving a spontaneous vacation. Children waited eagerly, hoping just the right amount of snow would fall at just the right time to keep the school buses from running. For parents, a snow day could be a mixed blessing, depending upon whether their places of employment were closed the following morning. If we were all lucky, the streets would be cleared by noon, and everyone could hit the mall or go sledding on a nearby slope. Oh, the snow forts we could make!
But as Wisconsin’s school districts have adapted to virtual learning to keep students and staff safe, snow days might be a long-term casualty.
In 2019, the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction introduced Virtual Learning Time says Janice Mertes, Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning at the department. She oversees digital and virtual education for the state.
Even before COVID-19, school districts possessed the ability to go virtual rather than just canceling classes because of an emergency or inclement weather, says Mertes. But most districts didn’t know how to go about it. In the winter of 2019, the polar vortex forced districts to close school for days at a time because of cold weather. Faced with making up several days of schooling, more districts turned to the new virtual learning program.
Virtual Learning Time is not so much a mandate as a template that a school district can follow. Mertes says that DPI does not approve or disapprove a school district’s plan, but rather offers suggestions on how a district can go virtual.
DPI tells districts they have to consider equity. Does every student have a computer and internet? Those that can’t go online need an alternative such as pre-established learning packets. School lunches must be considered. What training is offered to teachers? How are parents informed and instructed on how to use the program? Districts were told to make sure they reviewed all aspects of their program with the school board and legal department.
Two districts were highlighted by DPI in its Virtual Learning Time outline: Random Lake and Neenah. It became clear that a program wasn’t something a district developed over the summer and placed on the shelf, blowing the dust off when the first heavy snow fell. Random Lake structured its calendar to establish virtual school days as part of its curriculum. Without regular use of virtual education, the program would surely fail when people scrambled because of an unexpected school building closing.
When school districts were surveyed by DPI before the pandemic, 66 districts stated they had developed plans. Mertes says another survey will be released at the end of February, and she expects all 425 public school districts will have plans by then.
“Save the Snow Day”
If school districts operate with in-person classes now, will they pivot to online instruction the first time the big snow falls? What will online districts do?
“If districts had to do this now, it’s a no brainer,” says Mertes. ”It does not mean they are going to do it all the time.”
The Campbell Soup company launched its “Save the Snow Day” campaign in December in an attempt to convince school districts to allow students at least an occasional traditional snow day where they can build snow forts, race their sleds down the hill, and the marketers hope, warm up inside with a nice bowl of Campbell’s soup.
The fear of losing snow days is not just an idle worry. EdWeek Research Center reports that the majority of districts would at least consider switching to online instruction rather than canceling schooling because of inclement weather.
On Dec. 15, the superintendent of West Virginia Jefferson County Schools brought many in the community to tears when she called off school for the area’s first major snowstorm even though the district was operating virtually. In her letter she stated:
“For generations, families have greeted the first snow day of the year with joy. It is a time of renewed wonder at all the beautiful things that each season holds. A reminder of how fleeting a childhood can be. An opportunity to make some memories with your family that you hold on to for life.
“For all of these reasons and many more, Jefferson County Schools will be completely closed for tomorrow…”
Ann Reyes, a school psychologist at Madison East High School in Madison, is overseeing her own children’s work through their online instruction. One is in kindergarten, the other in third grade. In addition to her parenting duties, she sits on the executive board of the Wisconsin School Psychologist Association.
Her children often log on in the morning to the virtual classroom using Zoom to meet with their teachers and other classmates. During the day, her children log off and on, sometimes talking with the teacher individually, sometimes in small Zoom groups in addition to whole class instruction.
Breaks are built in; a choice of snacks are provided. Her younger daughter might play with her Barbie doll for 15 minutes before going back to classwork. Reyes says her two daughters have different personalities. The younger daughter rolls with the concept of being virtual; she was only in a half-day program last year and has not had the experience of a regular full-day classroom. Her older daughter needs more direction and misses the strong relationship she had with her classroom teacher of last year. But both children have made the adjustment to virtual education fairly well.
As a high school psychologist, Reyes sees mixed results with virtual learning.“I see [high school] students who were doing well last year, and virtual schooling is not working for them. But I can’t say I am having more students struggling more virtually than any other year.”
“It requires a whole different level of executive functions and skills,” says Reyes. Virtual school days tend to be less structured, and students who did well in a traditional setting may have difficulty handling all the links and emails they have to manage.
Nevertheless, Reyes sees rising levels of stress among parents, teachers and students. “It is really important that we are focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of our kids and our parents and our educators at a time like this,” says Reyes. “Slow down, take a break. We are all looking for glimmers to normalize in our lives right now.”
Continues Reyes, “There are a lot of concerns about kids falling behind. And those concerns are certainly valid. But kids are also really resilient. Every school day is an important school day. I also think play is important at every age for kids’ development.”
So, should we be chaining our children to their computers when the snow begins to fall because we are so fearful that they might miss a day of academic progress?
Reflects Reyes, “What is more beautiful in nature than a snowfall, that fresh, new snow in the morning.” Looking at her own kids, she says, “As a mom, my kids have been talking about going sledding for days.”
As leaders craft plans to return students to the classroom, parents and children are hoping districts will keep in mind the cherished mental health break known as the snow day.
Superintendent Gibson in Jefferson County, West Virginia, concluded her letter with the following words:
“We will return to the serious and urgent business of growing up on Thursday, but for tomorrow… go build a snowman.”