As districts scramble to catch students up from a pandemic-induced academic slide, some are ditching snow days for remote classes with the aid of expanded access to technology.
The goal is to maximize learning time and minimize disruptions, but it’s not an easy switch. The move is often met with resistance from parents who want their children to have the traditional snow day experience, and others who worry about students without much at-home support to guide them through remote learning or adequate internet access.
Leaders of districts that have started using virtual learning days say they have found success in using frequent and clear communication, incorporating some fun activities, and being willing to adjust based on feedback from families and teachers.
Communicate your plan and reasoning early
It’s imperative that district leaders include teachers in the planning process, said Matt Hillmann, the superintendent in Northfield, Minn. Their expertise will help create a strong virtual learning model. Showing teachers their perspective is valued will kick off remote learning days on the right foot, too, Hillmann said.
Once the plan is made, districts should begin explaining what families can expect as soon as possible. Hillmann’s district begins sending messages to families in October, then sends follow-ups throughout the fall and winter.
The key, Hillmann said, is to explain the benefits.
Schools usually have a minimum number of days and hours they are required to provide instruction, and they build their academic calendars around those requirements, which vary by state.
Too many inclement weather closures mean districts are forced to make up those days later. They often tack them onto the end of the year, delaying the start of summer vacation, which is not a popular move among families and teachers.
“While we would all like to think that every instructional day is exactly the same, I think if you ask most teachers, they’ll say an added instructional day at the end of the year is not as engaging,” Hillmann said. “So the remote learning is intended to be a bridge through these winter weather events.”
In Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, district leaders have opted to decide on a case-by-case basis whether to cancel classes or shift to virtual learning.
For districts that take this approach, it can be difficult to make sure everyone’s on the same page about what to expect when inclement weather strikes.
Chris Cram, communications director for Montgomery County schools, said the district only switches to virtual classes if it can provide at least 24 hours’ notice. That day is reserved for communication and preparation.
The 160,000-student district aims to disseminate the virtual learning plan to families through as many channels as possible—phone calls, social media posts, emails, and face-to-face conversations. It also relies on community organizations and district-parent liaisons to spread the word.
“Information goes out to as many people as we can think of,” Cram said. “We have to be imaginative and innovative and think outside the box when we are getting ready because we don’t want anybody caught short and not able to participate, because that would be an inequitable approach to education.”
Incorporate fun, hands-on lessons
Having some fun activities on tap, especially for younger students, can go a long way in keeping kids engaged on remote learning days, Hillmann said.
In his district, 1st graders might be asked to read a book to a stuffed animal or make a bridge out of toys around the house, then take a picture and send it to their teacher.
“We’ve tried and found a lot of success in using some activities that are tied to the academics, but are also connected to what a typical snow day might be like,” Hillmann said.
Giving older students some flexibility is useful, too.
Middle and high school students start their remote learning days with a quick Zoom call with one of their classroom teachers, then have asynchronous lessons to work on throughout the day. That lets them work at their own pace, while also having time to relax during the day, if needed.
Be open to feedback and willing to make adjustments
It’s unlikely that everything will go perfectly, so being open to feedback and being willing to make adjustments can lead to long-term success.
Hillmann suggested tracking measures like student attendance—such as participation in Zoom meetings—to decide whether remote learning days are successful.
If parents or teachers give negative feedback, “look for the request in the complaint” and see if there’s a way to adjust in real time, he said. If not, districts should also set aside time at the end of the school year or in the summer to do a deeper evaluation and decide on any major changes, Hillmann said.
Consider your area’s culture before axing snow days altogether
In Minnesota, where the average annual snowfall is more than three feet, an impromptu day off of school when a blizzard strikes is ingrained in the culture, so axing snow days completely would be a tough sell, Hillmann said.
Districts can prevent a lot of pushback by striking a healthy balance.
That’s why his district still gives students a day off when snow piles up. But if the closures extend past one day, classes resume remotely.
“Understanding first that if you live in a state where that’s part of your tradition, giving kids at least one, if not two, traditional snow days is a healthy thing to consider,” Hillmann said.