Editorial: Blizzard Bags a smart way to tackle learning gap of snow days

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Will “Blizzard Bags” become the new normal during winter in rural Franklin County? This relatively new alternative to snow days in public schools sounds like a good idea whose time has come, and probably will become all the more productive and possible when broadband internet rolls out in the county’s small towns.

Blizzard Bags are really just assignments ready for students to take home when they’re likely to get snowed in. Orange, Petersham and Mahar Regional school committees are trying blizzard bags, as are many other schools in states like neighboring New Hampshire. So have Gateway regional schools based in Huntington.

Now Mohawk Trail Regional School District wants to try the snow day alternative, too, and will be looking at data compiled on a pilot year at Gateway Regional School District, which is very much like Mohawk.

For a district that covers nine hilltowns and at least 250 square miles, snowstorms can have a big impact on whether school buses can traverse narrow, steep and sometimes unpaved roads. Mohawk towns can easily experience a week of snow days a year. Students and staff may find it exciting to have a brief, unplanned holiday several times during a dreary winter, but the tradeoff costs the district, quite literally.

The Mohawk district could potentially save between $50,000 to $60,000 per year in combined savings for transportation, substitute instructors, food service and building utilities required to make up for snow days at the end of the year.

And some educators argue the educational value of a final week of classes in early summer is questionable. Superintendent Michael Buoniconti reports that his administrators agree time-on-learning during the hot days of June tends to be less productive than during the winter months. They also saw some potential benefit of giving students with broadband access the opportunity to become more proficient with online learning.

Mohawk plans to continue gathering comments.

While the state requires students to attend school for 180 days and 990 hours (high school) or 900 hours (elementary schools), the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has allowed Blizzard Bag exceptions to the 180-day rule based upon the substitution of high-quality work accomplished during cancellations.

The state calls Blizzard Bags “alternative structured learning day programs,” which the department is open to as long as districts “can ensure that the program meets the standard for structured learning time and that the assignments and/or projects are substantial.”

“These programs must also be accessible, include appropriate oversight and teacher involvement rather than resembling traditional homework assignments, and be approved by the district school committee or charter school boards of trustees,” the state policy states.

Blizzard Bags are defined by Gateway as either one-time assignments to be completed and returned within five days of the canceled school day, or a series of linked assignments that can be reviewed immediately, but are part of a long-term project that needs to be completed by May 15. Teachers are to prepare the lessons, review and assess the completed assignments and provide support for students between the assignment and completion days. Students who don’t complete their Blizzard Bag assignments could be “marked absent” for that day, affecting their attendance records. Or they could receive a zero for that assignment.

In its first year, 2016-17, the district had a 91 percent participation rate, and found that five days to complete the assignments was sufficient.

We will be interested to see what Mohawk parents have to say about the idea, but it’s hard to see why they would object to having their children productively occupied during snow days and avoiding an extra week of classes in June. We would want to ensure, as does the state education department, that the assignments were substantive and that teachers would be available online or at the return to school to ensure fruitful completion of the work.

It might not be as valuable as an actual day in school, but it has to be more beneficial than running out the clock in June. It all make sense, especially in these tough financial times, when every $50,000 counts.