Do storm days affect student learning?

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From the School Board with Adam Davies

Ah, snow days. Is there anything better at this time of year than the Facebook update, the telling red bar on the school board website, or the announcement on the radio that schools are closed for the day?  As a parent of a school-age child I understand the thrill which comes with an unexpected day off from school.  I have also shared the frustration of trying to find childcare on short notice and I sympathize with those who have to take an unplanned vacation day from work when schools are closed.

This winter has had an increase in the number of snow days from years’ previous and so it is not surprising there has been more commentary.  Across the province over the past few weeks there have been newspaper editorials, op-eds and letters to the editor discussing snow days. What is interesting though is a new element – the role of technology – which has been added to the discussion as people are asking if snow days could be turned into e-learning or cyber-days? Before addressing that specific question though I think it is important to ask ourselves, ‘Does a storm day school closure affect student learning?’

Alas, there is no consensus on that point.  On the one hand, Dr Paul Bennett, Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, wrote a report in 2010 for AIMS (Atlantic Institute for Market Studies) titled ‘School’s Out, Again: Why “throw away” school days hurt students’ (www.aims.ca/site/media/aims/SchoolsOut.pdf).  Following the record number of snow days during the winter of 2008-09 Bennett analyzed the impact those closures had on classroom learning and student achievement.  Although he admitted it was ‘difficult to make those linkages’ and ‘more authoritative research’ was needed, he nonetheless found the abundance of snow days had detrimentally affected student learning.  ‘Losing school days falls heaviest on Grade 12 graduating year students’, he wrote, and when looking at the data from the June 2009 Mathematics exam he found ‘the results were a set-back’ as ‘exam pass rates plummeted’.  Indeed, ‘the Grade 12 Mathematics exam pass rates dropped 6% province-wide.’  He did not make a clear causal relationship between snow days and student achievement but he did explain how storm closures had ‘completely disrupted the regular academic schedule’ for many students; they compounded the problem of student absenteeism; and did at the very least inflict ‘collateral damage’ on classroom learning. 

On the other hand however, in 2012 Harvard Kennedy School Assistant Professor Joshua Goodman wrote a short piece for the Massachusetts Department of Education titled ‘Flaking Out: Snowfall, disruptions of instructional time, and student achievement’ (www.hks.harvard.edu/fs/jgoodma1/papers/snowdays.pdf).  Using data from grades 3 through 10, from years 2003 to 2010, he found it was student absences, not school closures, which impacted student achievement.  In his opinion, ‘with slack time in the schedule, the time lost to closure can be regained.  Student absences, however, force teachers to expend time getting students on the same page as their classmates.’  As a consequence, his research suggested that it may be more damaging to leave schools open on days when the buses are not running and parents are reluctant to send their children to school because the absent students may fall behind the rest of their class.  Again, ‘closures have no impact. Absences do.’ 

It is clear snow days are a way of life here and I think we all recognize they can be a fun-filled opportunity as well as an inconvenience.  In December 2009, following the record number of snow days the previous winter, Dr James Gunn prepared a document, titled ‘School Storms Days in Nova Scotia: A Discussion Paper’ (www.ednet.ns.ca/files/reports/Storm_Days_Study_2009.pdf), which recommended a plan to better communicate storm closure policies to parents and to develop contingency plans for inclement weather.   Similar to the forward-thinking actions of 2009 I think we need to examine the issue of snow days after the near-record number this year.  Fundamentally, students, staff and parents need to talk about the significance of the instructional day and to decide whether it is important enough to look at delivering instruction in a different (i.e. online) way during a snow day.

 

Adam Davies is a member of the Chignecto Central Regional School Board.

Organizations: Schoolhouse Consulting, Institute for Market Studies, SchoolsOut.pdf Losing school Harvard Kennedy School Massachusetts Department of Education Chignecto Central Regional School Board

Geographic location: Nova Scotia

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