Today’s children will someday tell their own children about “snow days,” back when winter storms kept them out of school, and their stories will sound unimaginable and strange. Those were days when you didn’t have to “learn,” when you read something that wasn’t required by your English teacher or baked banana bread or caught up on daytime television or slid down the neighborhood hill. It snowed eight inches; everyone got the day off.
With today’s connectivity — children in many middle and high schools must have laptops, they submit papers and projects in virtual classrooms, and they check their grades online — it’s silly that weather that makes streets too treacherous to pass also means a break from a public education. It still does, however, and parents throughout eastern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire were reminded as much twice this week, when an already long Thanksgiving weekend took a victory lap with school cancellations on Monday and Tuesday — a rarity this early in the season.
It makes you wonder how districts will handle the rest of their snow day calendars and still meet state requirements of a minimum time spent learning. It also revisits the whole issue of why children cannot be given assignments — or invited to participate in some networked school activity — that would satisfy those needs even as they sit in their own living rooms.
Enter the “Blizzard Bag.” This was the novel idea to prepare instructional material so that children not at school could still be doing educational things while it snows outside. Districts with enough participation could check off a school day as far as the state's concerned, even though it snowed so much that their buildings didn’t physically open.
Not everyone loved the “Blizzard Bag” idea, and state education officials in Massachusetts decided this past summer to toss the program into the wood stove as of the 2020-21 school year. Among its failings, reports the Springfield Republican, are a lack of tailoring for kids on individualized education programs. The Massachusetts Teachers Association also expressed “serious concerns” and solicited the comments of dozens of educators, some of whom supported the approach, though an apparent majority did not.
Anthony Parolisi, an eighth-grade civics teacher and president of the Haverhill Education Association, told the state union in a comment representative of others: “Awful idea. I can’t teach from home. Students don’t learn form home. Blizzard bags water down the curriculum.”
In pulling the plug, Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley cited “a variety of factors including concerns about equitable access for all students.” Districts struggling to make up class time, he suggested, might begin their school years prior to Labor Day or schedule a single week off in March instead of separate one-week vacations in February and April.
Here we are again, quibbling over calendars in search of a solution that technology has already provided.
The same children who couldn't learn from home on Monday and Tuesday of this week, who must be sitting in a classroom to get their educations, are the same ones who will go to college and participate in online class projects and discussions. They’ll likely take at least one course online. In some capacity, they'll be required to engage online. Once they graduate and enter the professional world, remote work from home or a library or coffee shop will be a norm, if not a necessity.
And, if we’re honest with ourselves, many children spent the first two days of this week in some connected fashion, if not on the internet then texting with their friends.
Those without computers at home — and, certainly, not everyone has access to a computer at home — likely have mobile devices that give them some basic internet access. Online classrooms work on mobile devices, which means they can participate in a class discussion, or watch a series of videos and answer questions, or even conduct web research.
Those who fall into neither group — no home computer, no device — could either be given a tablet or bare bones device. Or, perhaps they are so young that enough pre-planned material, such as that packed inside a Blizzard Bag, would be more than sufficient for a day spent learning.
Snow days are an old tradition. But as much as they are honored by school children everywhere, technology and connectivity have made them an anachronism. It’s time that schools caught up, if not with Blizzard Bags then with their electronic counterpart.