This winter is breaking records for school cancellations.
South Central Indiana schools have reported 381 delays and closings this year, compared to only 129 the year before and a mere 14 in the 2011-12 school year.
Some schools haven’t seen a regular week since before Thanksgiving, and that is impacting districts and their students.
What A Snow Day Looks Like
It’s a little after 9 a.m. on Wednesday, and Will and his brother Sam are sledding down the hills in their front yard.
Their mom Megan Eller says they’ll stay out and play until they get too cold. They’ll go inside for a bit and likely come out again later.
“They will end up going outside at least one or twice today to play in the snow, because they need to go out and move around or otherwise they’ll be doing laps in the house,” Eller says.
In a sense, they have a routine – for their disrupted routine – because they have been down this path many times this year.
The Eller boys are in kindergarten and first grade at University School in Bloomington.
So far this year class has been cancelled five times, and as of this week, delayed nine times.
“Today they’re excited. It’s a novelty,” Eller says. “There’s all this snow. They’ll get to go out and play. But I know especially right after winter break they’d been home for two weeks, sso by then they were like I want to go do something.”
This week much of the state set a record for the most snowfall in one day.
The latest blast dumped 6.5 inches in Howard County.
Eastern Howard School Corporation Superintendent Tracy Caddell can’t remember when his students had a full week of class with no closings and no delays.
“I believe it’s been before Thanksgiving so it’s been awhile,” Caddell says.
The busses sat parked again this week, and school was cancelled for the eigth time this year.
Caddell says in the mornings, he and other district officials always try to find ways to keep the schools open before making the call. They have to consider things such as road conditions. They ask can students who are driving make it in safely, and can buses navigate the rural roads?
“It’s just communicating with lots of other people and trying to make a good decision and sometimes you don’t.” Caddell says. “We’ve certainly had delays when we should have closed. And those were unfortunate because every day is different.”
Snow Days, Delays and Student Learning
All the delays and closings are impacting curriculum.
Caddell’s school district moved around its grading periods and midterm schedule while warning that more cancellations could lead to further schedule changes.
Caddell is also among the district leaders who have been issuing appeals to the state to extend the testing window for the high-stakes ISTEP+ exam, which begins in March.
These winter months, particularly January and February, are an important time for ISTEP+ prep.
“When you count the number of days we lost and the two hour delays, we’ve lost two weeks of instructional time and that’s going to impact some children, no doubt about it,” Caddell says.
Members of the State Board of Education this week voted to extend the ISTEP+ window seven school days so teachers have more time to prepare kids. The window is now March 3-12.
“Obviously when the test results come back, I don’t think it’s going to take a rocket scientist to say, if the results aren’t what we want them to be, for the first suspect to be winter weather,” says State Board of Education member Brad Oliver. “At this point, I don’t know what else can be done.”
Research shows the effects snow days have on students is complicated.
A Harvard study that came out earlier this year found closures don’t impact student learning in the long run. In fact, it found that keeping schools open during bad weather is more detrimental than closing them.
That’s because if the school closes that time can be made up. But if school doesn’t close, the teacher is likely forced to deal with a lot of student absences and then wastes a lot of time getting those students caught up.
Making Up Snow Days
The state waived two snow days during the polar vortex – January 6 and 7 - but districts will likely have to make up all the other days they have closed.
“Seventy-two percent of parents said they did not want to have school or have their kids have to go to school on Saturdays. Unfortunately we may still have to do that,” Caddell says.
That decision will in large part depend on whether the state decides to grant additional waivers. State Superintendent Glenda Ritz wants to create a conditional waiver where school districts could make up lost school days in smaller time increments instead of full days.
She says local school boards would have to vote to change their school calendars and apply to the State Department of Education for the waivers.
Back in Bloomington, Megan Eller is just taking it all in. She’s from Chicago and says this whole experience is new to her.
“I walked in high school over a mile in the snow to get to school – it sounds like one of those stories – back in my day, but I did that,” Eller says. “So it’s just very different here because it is so rural there are a lot of people out on these windy country roads.”