Schools end blizzard bag program after state cancels initiative

  • The Mohawk Trail Regional School District is among several Franklin County school districts that recently introduced the blizzard bag program. The state announced it will discontinue the program starting in the 2020 to 2021 school year. Staff File Photo/Micky Bedell

Staff Writer
Published: 7/15/2019 8:54:31 AM

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education canceled the “blizzard bag” initiative late last month, citing concerns about equal access to the program.

Blizzard bags are educational materials allocated to students to complete at home on snow days. Each bag counts as one day of attendance, meaning schools do not need to tack on an extra day to the end of the year.

A few school districts in Franklin County recently started the blizzard bag program: Mohawk Trail, Hawlemont, Ralph C. Mahar, Orange and Petersham. The remaining districts — Frontier, Pioneer, Greenfield and Gill-Montague — did not introduce blizzard bags. And in Union 28, which oversees four Franklin County elementary schools — Swift River, Erving, Leverett and Shutesbury — only Swift River School introduced blizzard bags, according to its Principal Kelley Sullivan.

The Ralph C. Mahar, Orange and Petersham districts plan to continue the program next year for up to seven days. The superintendent of these three districts, Tari Thomas, criticized the state’s decision in a statement Monday.

“Remote/distance learning is becoming more and more mainstream,” Thomas wrote. “In a time where education is expected to be innovative and personalized with student voice, these new regulations feel regressive.”

Swift River School piloted the program for two days during the 2019 to 2020 school year. The district is still deciding whether it will continue the program, Sullivan said, as “leadership hasn’t had a chance” to meet to discuss the matter. While blizzard bags had some benefits, she said, she noted they also posed issues to some students with working parents.

“There was a question of fairness,” Sullivan said of the blizzard bag program.

Meanwhile, Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont Superintendent Michael Buoniconti said the district will end the program this coming school year due to the state’s decision to cancel it. Even though many of Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont’s nine member towns do not have broadband access, Buoniconti said districts did not see issues with access to blizzard bags.

“The students could perform their (blizzard bag) assignments offline,” Buoniconti said.

Buoniconti called the program a “good start.”

“If we were to continue with the program, we would have needed to refine (the initiative),” Buoniconti said. “For example, we would have needed to specify the hours that teachers would be available to students with questions.”

The state announced it would end the blizzard bag program in a June 26 memorandum from department Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley to Massachusetts school superintendents, charter school leaders and educational collaborative directors.

Also known as “alternative structured learning day programs,” schools with previously approved initiatives can continue them for the 2019 to 2020 school year, the memorandum wrote. Following this, the program will be entirely discontinued in the school year beginning fall 2020.

Concerns have emerged in the past few years about the blizzard bag program, raised by parents and “other stakeholders.” Critics questioned whether the bags are equally accessible to everyone, and if they meet standards for “structured learning time.”

In response to these concerns, the education department created a work group in winter of the 2018 to 2019 school year to review the blizzard bags, inviting 10 school districts who both used and did not utilize the program, plus the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the Massachusetts School Administrators’ Association.

Ultimately, the decision to end blizzard bags was the culmination of a “variety of factors,” the memorandum wrote, “including concerns about equitable access for all students.”

While the blizzard bag program has been canceled, the education department urged schools to make “every attempt to reschedule school days lost” to inclement weather. The agency raised a couple of ideas to increase education days before summer break: holding the first day of school before Labor Day, as well as reducing breaks from two one-week vacations in February and April to one week in March.

Reach Grace Bird at gbird@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 280.




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