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Schools Need to Get Past the Either/Or Approach to Snow Days

You might have missed it in the news this week, with all the winter weather stories coming from the Midwest, but Baltimore was hit with a whopping 3 inches of snow. Conditions were not good. Streets and sidewalks here were slick, and hundreds of car accidents were reported across the area. While Tuesday's chaos is definitely part of a larger story about Baltimore's aging infrastructure, the response in Baltimore has centered on a more immediate aspect of Tuesday's weather related challenges: schools' CEO Gregory Thornton's decision to open schools on time. No Baltimore City students were hurt on their commute, but in neighboring Anne Arundel County, three students were involved in accidents.

Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County were the only area school districts that opened Tuesday on time. Baltimore's CEO was roundly criticized in social media through student and parent tweets, and the Baltimore Sun noted that the extra cars on the road delivering kids and staff were part of the too heavy traffic that delayed plows doing necessary work. Thornton responded by defending his decision and saying he made the right call for kids. In his official message, Thornton praised staff and students for their "commitment to teaching and learning," and vowed to continue working with staff students and parents to provide quality instruction based on caring for children's well-being.

Here's the thing about commitment to teaching and learning. I know what it means because I see it every day. It means that kids don't give up when they're working on a hard problem, even when it's their 82nd day of feeling frustrated with Algebra I. It means that academic rigor is taken seriously and kids treat each other with respect and support each other through tough intellectual questions. But commitment to education shouldn't mean students and teachers slipping their way into work, or being put in less than safe conditions. Commitment means overcoming academic rigor, not physical risk.

The reality is that extreme weather situations are and will continue to be a frequent part of our winter (and summer, spring, and fall) realities. Districts are planning  how to respond, and building more snow days into the year is one way. In fact, a recent study suggests that snow days don't pull down student achievement on standardized tests.

Time lost to absenteeism, because parents are unwilling to send their children to school, can be a greater culprit of valuable instructional time. I saw this today, when an already struggling student came back to my class unprepared to engage in a class discussion because he was unable to start an activity with his peers the day before.

It is crucial that districts explore new solutions to the traditional either-or approach to extreme weather situations. When districts invest in online resources, especially those that are built for mobile devices, students and parents can have easier communication with schools and teachers, and students can stay on track. Midwestern school districts are beginning to experiment with e-learning as a potential way to maintain student safety while maximizing instructional time. Ohio has a system that gives students up to two weeks to complete assignments, in case they don't have computer or internet access at home. However, I understand that the call to cancel school is riddled with complexity, even in dangerous conditions. When kids make it so school, they are fed and in a heated, supervised environment, which is not always the case for all kids when the day is canceled.

The best way to show our commitment to teaching and learning is to think boldly and creatively around problems and using the solutions that already exist—it is time we step into the digital age with our school policy as well. Otherwise, we run the risk of stripping the meaning of another important buzzword: accountability.

As I write this, a two-hour delay was called for tomorrow. Thank you, Dr. Thorton.

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