When school districts across the nation — and world — went virtual at the start of the pandemic, some questioned whether this would mean the end of the “snow days.”
After all, schools have proven they can deliver instruction remotely, following an entirely remote spring and a fall quarter that saw many districts switching in and out of virtual learning.
If teachers can deliver instruction online for a full semester, some asked, couldn’t they switch to virtual instruction instead of cancelling school all together in the event of a weather emergency.
Local school officials had ample opportunity to ponder this question during the spring, summer and fall, and by now, area districts have come out with their updated snow day practices.
In short, don’t be too quick to write off snow days to the past.
The question is not “can we” deliver instruction online during snow days, but rather “should we,” said Jefferson schools Superintendent Mark Rollefson.
“It only makes sense now that we have done virtual for several months on and off that if/when we have a severe weather day we simply move to a virtual approach and continue with education…right?” Rollefson said in a recent memo to district families.
But looking into all of the ramifications, the question proved to be not so simple, the Jefferson superintendent said.
“It is our responsibility to educate all,” he said, noting that even during pandemic-related school closures, the Jefferson schools, as with other area districts, have had to offer “safe spaces” for students who had no internet at home, who had specific learning obstacles schools were legally required to address, who had experienced hardships deserving attention and who relied on school meals per federal requirements.
“We have hundreds of students who do not have reliable internet access at home and, as such, those children access our safe access internet (on-site) during virtual closures,” Rollefson noted.
In the event of ice, snow, or other weather-related emergencies, this is not an option, he said.
Ever since the pandemic forced the local schools to go online, school officials have studied the possibility that virtual learning might be a way to recoup days of instruction during snow days.
Rollefson said that Jefferson officials determined that “in the spirit of legal constraints and equity, this is purely not possible.”
Thus, if the Jefferson schools experience weather delays and/or school cancellations this year, the district’s approach will be similar to that of years past.
“We may use these days as opportunities for virtual staff meetings..., but we will not be able to use these days as actual instructional days,” the superintendent said.
The Lake Mills public schools are taking a similar approach.
An official in the Lake Mills district office said earlier this month that “we are keeping our snow days.”
For the time being, the Lake Mills schools are continuing to hold classes in person with a virtual option for families who choose remote instruction.
When inclement weather closes school, Lake Mills students will have the day free to play in the snow — or to help their parents clear the driveway — and will not be expected to tune in to online classes.
Cassandra Schug, superintendent of the Watertown Unified School District, said that the Watertown district has not made any official changes to its ‘snow day’ policy although the school board may re-examine the policy at a later date.
“Certainly we’ve learned over the past year that our district has the technology to support learning at home,” Schug said Monday when reached by phone on her winter break.
“However, not every student has equal access to technology at home, or good internet connectivity,” she said.
“And there’s a certain magic in the ‘snow day’ that children really look forward to, and that is a factor as well,” Schug said.
In Hustisford, District Administrator Heather Cramer said technology is a factor.
“The Hustisford School District will use snow days as we have in the past. We have several families that do not have adequate internet access especially during challenging weather. Just like Dodgeland, we want to ensure equitable access to all students. I guess we will keep our fingers crossed for no snow days, but in a year like we have had, a snow day where kids can be kids and play in the snow and enjoy the outdoors in Wisconsin would be wonderful and encouraged,” she said.
Dodgeland District Administrator Annette Thompson echoed those comments.
“In general, snow days will continue to be snow days for Dodgeland. We have too many households that lack strong, reliable internet access needed to learn in a virtual environment. Thus, the decision was based on a lack of equitable access to learning,” she said.
Johnson Creek schools Superintendent Michael Garvey said his district has made no changes to its existing snow days policy.
“The rationale for that is that in order for our students to be prepared and have access to their technology at home, we’d have to have advance notice,” Garvey said.
He noted that he tends to be pretty “tight” as to when he makes the decision to call off school due to inclement weather, with the decision coming in the early hours of the morning, and that would not give either students or teachers the time to prepare for a day of virtual instruction.
The School District of Fort Atkinson, which has been all-virtual for some time, has not had to deal with the issue of potential snow days so far this season, but with the drop in COVID-19 cases in the area, the Fort Atkinson school board recently authorized a return to in-person classes, effective Jan 5.
Lisa Haas, administrative assistant to Fort Atkinson school Superintendent Rob Abbott, said that students and staffers are urged to take their computers and study materials home every evening during the winter months in case of a closure.
If the district is in an all-virtual learning format during inclement weather, virtual learning will continue without interruption.
If the district is offering in-person classes with mirrored virtual instruction for families who choose that option, planned will have two options.
If the district receives advance warning of pending inclement weather which gives staffers enough time to plan for a switch to virtual, the Fort Atkinson schools will engage their virtual learning program using the established virtual schedule.
However, if there is not sufficient advance warning of the pending inclement weather, leaving staff members insufficient time to plan, the district will not hold scheduled classes.
Instead, teachers may make asynchronous activities available to students, and staff members will use the time for school-related preparation.
— Reporter Ed Zagorski contributed to this story