Snow days threatened by the rise of online learning amid coronavirus

The COVID-19 pandemic has halted many traditions — from shaking hands to sports events — at least temporarily, and now it’s threatening a pleasure as old as school itself: snow days.

The future of those unexpected days off came up during Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova’s weekly virtual press briefing Tuesday as an early-season cold front moved through the metro area. Cordova said no formal talks have occurred yet within Colorado’s largest school district, but she hinted that those discussions may not be far away.

“The silver lining to what we are learning about the pandemic is the opportunity to continue learning even with the need to go into quarantine or potentially even around extreme weather conditions …,” she said. “My sense is we will be able to stay connected with our students via technology when the weather doesn’t allow us to get out on the road.”

There’s no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak has forced schools all over the country to up their game when it comes to providing online instruction, after the contagious pathogen spread across the globe and forced the closure of thousands of schools last spring. Many have kept locks on the doors as the new academic year started up over the past month.

The idea of burying the snow day under a fresh pile of Zoom classes is getting a front-row seat in Vermont and Kansas.

“That would also mean there won’t be a need to make up days at the end of the school year, either,” Charles Foust, then-superintendent of the Kansas City, Kansas, school district told the Kansas City Star in April. “Even though we were nervous when this all started, this is making us think differently about how to do school.”

Colorado’s second-largest school district, Jefferson County, isn’t currently discussing the idea, but No. 3 Douglas County School District, with 67,000 students, appears open to it.

“We are currently revising our policy on school closures related to weather to include eLearning,” spokeswoman Paula Hans wrote in an email Tuesday. She didn’t elaborate.

Arvada sixth-grader Everett Vair, who attends Oberon Middle School, said he would be crestfallen if snow days are phased out in favor of online learning. The 11-year-old said he has had the pleasure of experiencing five unanticipated days off from school due to snowstorms over the years — days he filled with sledding and video games.

“You would lose that shining hope in the distance that you just get to have a day off to have fun,” he said, as he stood in his backyard Tuesday under a gray curtain of sleet.

His father, Michael, said snow days have a value that it would be a shame to lose in what is often an overscheduled world for young people. He remembers excitedly calling the bus barn in Evergreen as a child to see if school buses would be venturing out into stormy weather or not.

“It’s sad to think of them not having that glimmer of hope that when the clouds start building up they might not have to go to school,” he said. “There’s something to be said about having spontaneous free time.”

But snow days aren’t always easy to call, or manage. Last fall, a pre-Halloween storm that arrived a bit earlier and more energetically than forecast enraged parents as they tried to get their kids to class on slick streets early in the morning only to find schools throughout the metro area closing shop as the storm ramped up.

Jeremy Meyer, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education, said policies on snow days are made at the district level. But school districts must adhere to state rules on instructional hours, he said, meaning if a district holds classes online in lieu of canceling a scheduled student contact day, it must take attendance, document teacher-student interaction time and ensure that students have the necessary technology and internet access to participate in remote learning.

Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said there is no doubt the snow day is in greater danger than it has ever been before. But students dreaming of that unscheduled day on the sledding hill need not start worrying just yet — not as long as the COVID-19 pandemic is in full swing.

“I don’t think anyone has time to do it right now with all the day-to-day responsibility of keeping the schools open,” he said.

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