School & District Management

Will Schools Actually Ditch Snow Days for Virtual Learning? The Outlook Is Still Cloudy

By Caitlynn Peetz — January 20, 2023 5 min read
Buses parked covered with snow
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After the widespread pandemic-era use of virtual learning, rampant speculation began that schools would abandon traditional snow days and replace them with online classes.

For many districts, that’s been at least partially true, but it seems snow days are far from extinct.

In 2020, when COVID-19 pushed most schools across the country to shutter their buildings and switch to online classes, the need to shut down operations due to snow seemed to melt away. Students were already at home—eliminating the typical excuse that getting to school would be challenging or dangerous. They had laptops and tablets to do their work.

Even as buildings reopened and schools returned to more normal operations in 2021 and 2022, parents and community members speculated that the expectation to log on when snow hits would remain.

There’s no conclusive data about districts’ approaches to inclement weather in the 2022-23 school year. But in an EdWeek Research Center survey conducted in November 2020, 39 percent of principals and district leaders say their district had converted snow days to remote learning days, and another 32 percent said their districts were considering the change.

Now, many districts appear to be avoiding an all-or-nothing approach, instead opting to set a number of days that virtual instruction can be used in lieu of a snow day, or choosing whether to close or pivot online on a case-by-case basis.

Avoiding closures is appealing, superintendents say, but putting it into practice can be difficult.

Among the considerations: There’s more continuity in learning when students experience fewer unexpected interruptions, particularly important as students try to rebound from the academic blow of the pandemic. Often, when schools are forced to close, those days have to be made up later, which can spoil families’ summer plans. And the days tacked on to the end of the year generally aren’t as useful as normal school days either, so students get less out of them.

For those reasons, some districts—like in New York City, Green Bay Schools in Wisconsin, and the Salem district in Massachusetts—have scrapped snow days altogether.

In Virginia, state law may soon mandate the same approach. Republican Delegate Daniel Marshall III recently introduced a bill that would require districts to forego school closures for virtual learning.

Seattle schools’ policy is also to either delay classes two hours if there is bad weather, or to shift online for the day or days. The decision to avoid closures due to weather was made in response “to family and staff requests to avoid extending” the school year, according to the district’s website.

Schools are trying to maximize learning time post-pandemic

Other districts, like the District of Columbia school system, have decided to keep traditional snow days. It did so in part because major gaps remain in access to technology and the internet despite progress made during the pandemic; those gaps could exacerbate inequitable access to education if classes were to continue remotely.

In nearby Montgomery County, Md., district leaders this month decided to take inclement weather one storm at a time, rather than using a hard-and-fast rule about always switching to virtual classes or closing when bad weather strikes.

If the inclement weather is forecast well in advance and the district is able to give at least 24 hours’ notice to its 160,000 students’ families that schools will be closed, classes will move online rather than being canceled, Communications Director Chris Cram said.

In the day leading up to the closure, the district will work with community and advocacy groups, as well as school-based staff, to communicate the plan and make sure students have the equipment and materials they need for remote learning.

“What was difficult during the pandemic is that it was day after day, week after week of virtual learning, and that was difficult for many and learning loss occurred,” Cram said. “This is a stopgap to waste not a moment of the time we have. Because we may have 12 years with our students, but it’s only 180 days a year, six-and-a-half or seven hours a day. We must take every moment we can to ensure that learning happens.”

Remote learning instead of snow days isn’t a brand new concept

Some districts had made the transition to a more flexible approach even earlier.

Matt Hillmann, the superintendent of the district in Northfield, Minn., said his district began utilizing e-learning in 2019 after having 11 snow days the year prior.

The district still uses snow days—it is Minnesota, after all, and it’s part of the area’s culture, Hillmann said. But if weather forces closures for more than a day, it moves over to distance learning.

The Northfield district has found that incorporating lessons that include activities the youngest students enjoy doing, rather than sitting behind their laptop, has been beneficial. First graders, for example, might be asked to record themselves reading aloud to a stuffed animal or to write about themselves, underlining the nouns and verbs in their sentences.

Older students have more independent learning time, which has become a valuable life skill after the pandemic, Hillmann said.

“Remote work is becoming something that’s really common in a lot of workplaces,” he said. “So, I think we’re getting closer in that regard to mimicking what students will actually encounter in the workforce.”

Regardless, some parents have said they don’t think the remote learning days are sufficient, a perspective Hillmann said is “perfectly appropriate and understandable.”

But it is also sometimes rooted in the romantic idea that kids go to school and are engaged in rigorous coursework for six hours straight, Hillmann said. In fact, there’s also lunch and recess breaks, projects, socialization, and time to be creative and have fun, which are also important to students’ growth and success.

“The priority is absolutely to be in school as much as possible, but when you can’t be, e-learning is an option that we have to kind of bridge that gap,” Hillmann said. “It’s a way to try and make it up in real time.”

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