Virtual classes could make snow days a thing of the past for some St. Louis-area schools
The first sticky snowfall of the year brings hope for a snow day for kids, but for some schools in the region and across the country, snow day policies are changing.
In the St. Louis area, several school districts are planning to have virtual classes instead of traditional snow days this year, and many more are planning to use both snow days and virtual learning days if winter weather makes roads unsafe.
It’s a shift that accelerated during the pandemic but could be here to stay, said Dan Domenech, executive director of the national School Superintendents Association.
“There's no question that some form of hybrid learning is going to be the standard as we move forward past the pandemic period,” Domenech said.
In a November 2020 national survey of school officials, almost 40% said they had converted snow days to virtual learning days. In the St. Louis area, the St. Louis Public Schools and the Ritenour, Mehlville and Hazelwood school districts all have plans to learn from home in inclement weather.
On past snow days, the Obermark family of St. Louis would head to Benton Park to find a hill for sledding and try to enjoy the snow for the short time it’s often here.
“I want to build a snowman, have a snowball fight, go sledding, go sledding and go sledding,” said Carter Obermark, who is in fourth grade in the St. Louis district.
But starting last year, on days that would have been traditional snow days, Carter was expected to log on and attend his classes. The district is planning to do the same this year.
“By the time we're done, it'll probably be dark outside and we won't get to play in the snow,” he said.
Of course, the plan could change if something like a widespread power outage makes virtual learning impossible, said George Sells, director of communications for St. Louis Public Schools.
The pandemic could also change the calculus for school districts. Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education allows schools up to 36 hours of virtual instruction in the school year, which works out to about five school days. That rule was temporarily extended during the pandemic, but now it’s back in place.
This week in the St. Louis district, Bryan Hill and Ashland elementary schools both had to switch to remote learning because of COVID-19 staffing issues, which means those two are a few days closer to the 36-hour limit.
“If we've learned anything over the last couple of years, it's the need for flexibility and the need to be able to shift gears a little bit, depending on the situation on a given day,” Sells said.
In the Ritenour School District, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Denean Steward recently scrolled through a virtual homeroom, with students represented by icons like a horse, a tiger and a dinosaur. The platform is one of a handful that students will use if winter weather sends them home for the day.
Steward sees some upsides to the new snow day plan — the district won’t have to make up days at the end of the year, and it could be an opportunity to keep kids learning, to address pandemic education gaps.
“It's very important to make sure that every day, we use that as an opportunity for learning as much as possible,” Steward said.
This snow day plan could be a way to keep everyone familiar with virtual instruction as the pandemic continues to present new challenges, Superintendent Chris Kilbride said.
“We want to make sure that virtual continues to be a part of the vocabulary here in the district,” Kilbride said.
Ritenour’s virtual snow day schedule is shorter than a normal school day, with a break in the middle of the day, so administrators hope kids will still have some time to play outside.
Teachers also have plans to incorporate the snow in their virtual lesson plans. On a snowy day last year, Kristina Erby-Carr held a virtual snowball fight with her Marion Elementary first grade class, and she still laughs talking about it.
“We took paper and we balled it up and we threw it at the screen,” Erby-Carr said. “So just trying to make sure that it’s fun so that the kids are not feeling like they’re missing out on something.”
A permanent shift?
The move to more virtual learning is part of a broader rethinking of what school looks like. Districts could begin to offer remote learning as a supplement for children on weekends, after school and during holiday periods, Domenech said.
“I think we're recognizing that learning can take place regularly all the time, not necessarily just during the school day,” Domenech said.
But equity is still a problem, he said. The majority of children now have a laptop or tablet because of federal pandemic funding, but home internet access is still a barrier.
For St. Louis Public Schools, Sells says he doesn’t know if the end of snow days will be a permanent change, but students are already preparing for the possibility.
Jonas Hubbard is in sixth grade in the district and is sad about the change. He says if this becomes permanent, he just won’t tell future kids about snow days.
“I would not tell them about it, so then they wouldn't know what they're missing out on,” Hubbard said.
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