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Virtual learning and the end of Michigan snow days

children in snow
School districts across Michigan were forced to become more comfortable with remote learning after COVID-19 tore through the state in the past two years. Could that make student snow day closures a relic of the past? (Shutterstock)

Will school snow days soon be a thing of the past? 

As a winter storm swept through Michigan Wednesday, many schools closed for winter weather, but Detroit Public Schools Community District and Ann Arbor Public Schools pivoted to online learning. 

Both districts had already used up the number of days the state allotted to cancel school for things like bad weather and illness. The pandemic made school districts prioritize technology and internet needs of their students. With teachers and families more familiar with virtual learning, it’s possible that more schools will choose to switch to virtual days rather than completely canceling school.

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It’s a dilemma faced by schools this week from Illinois to New York, as a huge winter storm buried parts of the Midwest and East under a thick blanket of snow. Technology is now in the hands of students and teachers in many districts to learn remotely during inclement weather. The question is, do schools — and families — want to replace traditional out-of-school snow days with at-home learning.

Educators say it’s too early to tell if virtual learning will become the new norm for would-be snow days. 

At the Grand Blanc Academy, a public charter school of roughly 390 students from pre-K to 8th grade, Principal Patty Wood said the decision on when to close classrooms remains a balancing act. She must weigh the safety of busing children in bad weather against other factors, such as the many children, including lower-income students, who rely on schools for their meals. 

Wood said she isn’t sure what the future will be of schools switching to virtual on would-be snow days.

“But just because we have one-on-one equipment” for remote learning, “and teachers are very good at flipping on a dime, it's not as easy as it looks.”

She said if teachers are in school the day before, they can bring their supplies home if a big storm appears likely. But that’s not always the case and pivoting a lesson from in-person to online takes time. 

The head of the state superintendents’ association also cited potential obstacles. 

Tina Kerr, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents & Administrators, told Bridge Michigan virtual days require planning. And in a pandemic, with schools dealing with staff shortages and outbreaks, she does not know of a lot of districts pivoting to a virtual day if they still have days allotted for a snow day.

“I've heard of a few that may have utilized” virtual days, Kerr said. “But for the most part, the conversation’s been, ‘What do we do post-pandemic? And how are we going to work with students that may need that additional support?’ But the way things are right now, I think people just look at the snow days as an opportunity to get a break because it's been so chaotic.”

She said it’s likely school leaders will consider the benefits and drawbacks of virtual learning as an option when snow prevents traveling to school as they figure out what to do for the next school year. 

“I think that there would be some interest in the future about using e-learning days versus calling them ‘snow days,’ but it's going to obviously be dependent on district to district needs. Some of our smaller districts have been able to be in-person all along. Some of our larger districts, obviously due to transmission, haven't had that opportunity.” 

While there is no official state count on the number of districts that closed for snow this week, it appears that of the schools that closed their buildings, the majority fully closed rather than pivoted to online learning, said Peter Spadafore, executive director at Middle Cities Education Association, which represents a consortium of Michigan urban school districts.

Spadafore said he is skeptical the snow days of yore will disappear completely in the near future, both because of the “allure” of unexpected days off to play in the snow, and because internet access is spotty in northern Michigan and in the homes of some lower-income families.

“It’s fair to say that some schools are in the position to think differently (than in the past) about whether to call a snow day or a virtual day,” Spadafore said. “But not all schools or all families could participate in that equitably across the state.”

Detroit Public Schools Community District announced Tuesday it would shift to virtual learning for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. District superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in a statement to Bridge the district will continue to use online learning instead of canceling school if there is bad weather.

“The district is out of emergency days so we do not have a choice,” he said. “Assuming student attendance normalizes from the impact of COVID (i.e. no individual school closings, high rates of quarantining that impacts staff and student attendance) next year and then we would go back to canceling school instead of online learning.” 

School districts in a number of states have test driven similar programs, with some  dating back to before the COVID pandemic

Superintendent Jason Mellema of the Ingham Intermediate School District said he sees the potential for virtual days instead of snow days as a conversation of “haves versus the have nots” depending on whether areas have access to high-speed internet.

He said while the pandemic forced districts to invest in technology for students, the pandemic also demonstrated there are geographic areas that still need more support in building internet infrastructure. 

“You know, I look at internet access at this point in time as being standard just like electricity, just like water, you know, clean fresh water, I look at it as being one of the basics because regardless of what industry that you're in, so much of our lives are connected via the internet and so making sure that all of our families have those opportunities is important.”

Mellema said he is excited that the state government and federal government are having broader discussions about internet infrastructure. He also cautions against the thinking that closing schools for snow days is welcomed by everyone. Some families scramble to find child care or miss out on hourly wages to watch their children at home. 

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“Snow days aren't necessarily always that romanticized belief that kids are going to go outside and play and make snow angels and snowmen, you know, skate and do all the wonderful things which some families can do but other families can't,” Mellema said. “We know for a fact that many times schools are some of the safest harbors for kids. Kids are going to be fed in many of our schools.” 

Michigan districts are allowed six “forgiven” days to close during the school year for events outside their control such as bad weather, outages, or disease outbreaks. Districts can request up to three additional days if needed. If districts cancel more school days than allowed by the state, they have to make up those days. Some do so by adding a few days in June, or shortening spring break.

As Bridge has reported, several districts are already running out of “forgiven” days

State lawmakers are getting pressure to provide more flexibility for forgiven days or lower the level of student attendance required for schools to receive their full portion of state aid on a given school day. 

Thomas Morgan, spokesperson for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said districts deserve some flexibility because “when these laws were written, no one was thinking of a global pandemic and virtual learning and all this.” 

Senior writer Ron French contributed to this report.

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