Mahar, Orange, Petersham school committees OK online assignment ‘Blizzard Bags’

  • The Ralph C. Mahar Regional School in Orange. RECORDER FILE PHOTO

Recorder Staff
Published: 11/24/2016 10:27:17 PM

ORANGE — Orange schools will be experimenting this winter with using “blizzard bags” to make snow days count.

Mahar Regional and Orange school committees have approved a pilot project to use online learning in place of classroom learning on days school is canceled because of weather.

And the mandatory online learning assignments will be counted toward the total “structured learning time” days the state requires in a school year.

The Orange School Committee, Petersham School Committee and Mahar Regional School Committee have all opted to experiment with the idea implemented in a handful of Massachusetts school systems to help students avoid the learning obstacle often caused by school days postponed due to snow.

The e-learning plans, known as Blizzard Bags, will be distributed to students before winter strikes so they can complete work at home on the snow day or within a week of the cancellation. The aim, according to the Superintendent Tari N. Thomas’ office, is to keep students learning when weather interferes with a school day and to capitalize on the rising popularity of online academic classes.

According to information from Thomas’ office, 24 percent of college students take online courses, and one of five Americans work from home. The superintendent cites a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study that indicates such courses are considered equally as effective as those taught in a traditional classroom.

Thomas also says time away from school can take a toll. There has long been a concern that summer break can hinder a student’s ability to retain information, but these concerns exist for snow days as well.

There were 10 snow days in the 2015 academic year of the Ralph C. Mahar Regional School districts, which has averaged five cancellations per year over the past six years. Most of these cancellations have been caused by inclement weather. Alternative structured learning day programs, such as Blizzard Bag programs, are meant to salvage school days.

Teachers will explain expectations and routines for Blizzard Bag assignments. They will also be available through direct communication (i.e. Google Classroom, PowerSchool, e-mail, webcasts, etc.) from 8 to 11:30 a.m. during the snow day and will check e-mails from time to time from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Hard copies of lessons and assignments will be given to students without direct availability to technology or those experiencing a power outage. Failure to participate in the Blizzard Bag program and provide evidence of completed work will result in an unexcused absence for that day.

Thomas said she will be sending out detailed information to parents about the plan in the next two weeks.

State officials have said it’s up to individual school committees to determine if Blizzard Bags can count toward structured learning time requirements.

According to Thomas, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires elementary students to attend school for 180 days and 900 hours and middle/high school students to attend for 180 days and 990 hours.

According to Thomas’ information, schools in Burlington and at Gateway Regional School District in Hampshire County — as well as in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. — have established practices like Blizzard Bags.

Thomas said her teachers are developing the plans, and although it’s hard to know how they will work out, she’s optimistic.

“There are going to be wrinkles ... we will just have to iron them out,” she said. Come spring, she will survey teachers, parents and secondary students about the program.

Orange has authorized five Blizzard Bag days, Petersham an unlimited number, and Mahar has five.

You can reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 258. On Twitter: @DomenicPoli


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