MIDDLESEX - Ever since Horace Mann established the roots of the state’s modern education system back in the mid-1800s, children across Massachusetts have eagerly anticipated New England’s infamous winter season in the hopes of getting a surprise day-off from school.
But when 2020’s first nor’easter walloped the region late last week by dumping more than a foot of snow on local roads and sidewalks, thousands of the state’s frowning youths awoke to discover that school was still in session.
The bizarre scenario that unfolded last week, unthinkable less than a year ago, is one of the unexpected developments to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. Specifically, because public school systems across the state were required last summer to establish more rigorous remote learning models, education officials in many communities have signaled an end to the time-honored tradition of calling snow days.
Last week, school-aged children in Winchester, Stoneham, Woburn, Wilmington, Wakefield and Tewksbury all woke up on Thursday morning and logged into their classrooms for a virtual or remote day of school. In fact within the Middlesex East’s primary coverage area, only Burlington and Reading called for a traditional snow day in the immediate wake of the storm.
“Due to the incoming inclement weather, Wakefield Public School buildings will be closed and students will participate in remote learning on Thursday. Principals will be providing a schedule and remote leaning guidance for the day,” announced Wakefield Schools’ Superintendent Doug Lyons as the storm approached last Wednesday.
“Full remote snow day fun with Newton’s Laws and escape room!” Winchester middle school teacher Marebeth DiMare posted on social media after the district’s experiment with the new winter format. “We were able to review the three laws before breaking out with a partner!”
Time on learning
Last summer, when the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) required all public school districts to create voluminous reopening reports, state officials suggested each community would be allowed to decide how to handle snow days.
Months later, DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley confirmed that authority will rest with superintendents and local School Committees.
“The Commissioner has determined that for this school year only (2020-2021), if there are days when schools must close because of inclement weather or other emergencies, districts may choose whether to treat those days as ‘snow days’ to be made up later or provide all students with remote learning,” Riley clarified in an October advisory.
For superintendents, many of whom dread the responsibility of calling snow days because of the frequency with which forecasts prove inaccurate, the ability to switch to a remote learning format likely seemed like a godsend.
Making that decision even easier is the state’s minimum school year requirement. Specifically, because of COVID-19, DESE officials readjusted that normal 180-day time-on-learning mandate to a minimum 170-day school year with the caveat that districts will be unlikely to obtain any further relief.
Since school systems in the region didn’t start classes until Sept. 15, a harsh winter with a plethora of snow days could leave communities at risk either running afoul of the state’s time-on-learning rules or pushing up against contractual deadlines for ending the year.
Most collective bargaining agreements with educators forbid School Committees from extending a school year beyond July 1, so the flexibility to call for remote learning instead of a snow day decreases the prospects of extending the school year too late into the summer season.
Though originally planning to call for remote learning after severe winter storms, Reading Schools’ Superintendent Dr. John Doherty late last week suddenly reversed course after discovering several unthought-of complications.
In a letter distributed to parents on the eve of last week’s nor’easter, the Reading administrator explained that while finalizing planning for the snow event, he realized the district’s remote learning policy never accounted for teachers reporting to their respective buildings to lead virtual classrooms.
In particular, when originally planning the town’s remote learning model early last summer, Doherty and a multitude of other superintendents across the state based their proposals on the idea that educators would teach remotely from their homes.
However, when teacher unions in North Andover and elsewhere began resisting School Committee decisions to start the school year in September with a hybrid learning model, the state intervened to quash the primary benefit of the competing learning format for teachers.
“It is [DESE’s] expectation that teachers and critical support staff working in districts that have a remote learning model will report to their schools to work from their classrooms and educational spaces each day. Having teachers and critical support staff in the school will be beneficial to students, teachers, staff, and administrators for several reasons,” the education commissioner explained in an August 21 memo.
Because the state mandated the virtual classroom change after a majority of communities had already crafted their reopening plans, central office administrators like Doherty, focused on the enormous task of resuming classes for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, apparently never reconsidered snow day plans.
“As we began to peel back the onion on what this would mean, we realized that having a ‘remote snow day’ would create equity issues from some of our staff and students,” the Reading superintendent explained last week.
“In full collaboration, we brought our concerns to the Reading Teachers Association and discussed the challenges with them and the pros and cons of traditional snow day versus remote snow day. After much discussion, they supported the idea that going back to traditional snow days would be the best course of action,” Doherty elaborated further.
Other communities have also stepped forward to stipulate that snow days might be called this winter, despite the fact that the extra days off have not been built into school calendars.
For example, during a School Committee gathering last Wednesday, Burlington Superintendent Dr. Eric Conti explained that because severe winter storms are known to cause sporadic power outages, there is a possibility that students and teachers at individual schools or within the district as a whole will be unable to access the on-site technology needed to conduct virtual lessons.
Conti, though acknowledging he plans to stick to the original plan of eliminating snow days in Burlington, also recognized that the unexpected days-off can be a morale booster for students and teachers alike.
In fact, in order to reward the school community for weathering the trying and at-times chaotic start to the 2020-2021 year, the Burlington superintendent ordered a traditional snow day as last Thursday’s nor’easter slowly swept its way out to sea.
“There’s rumored to be some weather event coming Wednesday into Thursday, and if that ends up panning out, the plan is to have an actual snow day,” the superintendent appraised the town’s School Committee.
“There’s enough that’s irregular about this year that we figured for our first snow storm, the kids should experience a day off,” he added. “I don’t want to extend the school year any more than usual, but if for some reason there’s a significant storm where people lose power, I’ll have to decide [whether remote learning is a practical alternative].”
Conti was not the only local superintendent hoping to give a much-needed respite to staff and students last week, as Woburn, Wakefield and Winchester also called a surprise snow day on Friday after successfully convening a substitute day of virtual learning the day prior.
Wakefield’s superintendent told the public that he came to the decision after receiving feedback from concerned parents about the district’s planned elimination of all snow days.
“Thank you all for your feedback. Please know that it was considered as we made the call to use our remote learning plan today and as we made the decision to do a traditional snow day closure tomorrow,” Lyons wrote in a social media post. “We are navigating this year trying our best to maintain a balance of time on learning and necessary breaks.”