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Online learning could mean changes for snow days

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — As a boy growing up in Kingsley, Adam Zellmer remembers winter school cancellations as carefree days filled with sledding, snowball fights and snow forts.

Now, as superintendent of South Hardin Community Schools, Zellmer starts inclement winter mornings by driving the roads of Hardin County at 4:15 a.m. to determine whether conditions are safe enough for students to make it to school. If they’re not, he cancels school — sometimes with musical flair — and accepts a day of lost learning as the price for the safety of students and staff. Zellmer has gained local renown by occasionally singing his school cancellation announcements.

For Zellmer’s district and others, online learning options put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic may mean the end of snow days, according to the Des Moines Register.

Iowa City will no longer have them, instead turning to “virtual learning days,” according to the district’s website. Des Moines Public Schools is also leaning that way, according to district spokesman Phil Roeder. The district will likely make a final decision this week after discussions on what staff would report to work and how students would receive meals.

District officials in Johnston, Urbandale and Ankeny, on the other hand, all have said they have no plans to get rid of snow days.

West Des Moines communications specialist Alexandra Wade said the district is using this year as a test to see how a one-day transition to online learning due to inclement weather works for students and families.

“…Because we cannot predict how many snow days we may have in any given year, the ability to eliminate them as ‘no school days’ would be a benefit,” she said.

South Hardin Community Schools, where Zellmer is superintendent, is a combination of two rural districts south of Iowa Falls — Eldora-New Providence and Hubbard-Radcliffe — with about 1,000 students.

In the 2018-19 school year, the district had 11 snow days — many due to the 2019 polar vortex. Though a snow day once in a while can be a welcome break for students and teachers, too many cancellations can force districts to tack days onto the end of the calendar, cutting into summer vacation, in order for schools to reach the required 1,080 hours of annual instructional time.

Zellmer was fine with canceling for a day when it was unavoidable. His district stretches 47 miles east to west, meaning buses and some families have long drives.

“I’d rather go to school in June than go to a funeral in January,” Zellmer said.

But now, if snow or ice makes roads dangerous, that day can be an opportunity for further learning. Zellmer said his district will take a hybrid approach to snow days. When storms are predicted early enough for teachers to prepare an online lesson, students will likely be expected to learn from home.

Snow days will be used if storms come on suddenly and teachers do not have time to prepare, or if administrators know the district won’t have to make up days at the end of the year.

Zellmer said he knows students enjoy snow days, and educators have a hard time finding unscheduled days to take off and can benefit from a mental health break. The days can be hard on families, though, and it is difficult to keep students engaged at the end of the year when days are added on.

“Anytime you have a disruption in the schedule, that has an impact on families,” he said. “(In) the majority of our families, both parents are working full-time or most of the time.”

The district has been learning in person since the beginning of the year, but almost every student is equipped with a laptop and an internet hot spot, which makes virtual learning possible.

Coon Rapids-Bayard, another rural district northwest of Des Moines, will make the decision on a case-by-case basis. Superintendent Eric Trager said the district is currently in a hybrid model, with in-person learning every day except Wednesdays, but middle school students and high schoolers have devices they can bring home if they need to learn virtually.

Like South Hardin Community Schools, Trager said it will be difficult to plan for remote learning if a winter storm hits unexpectedly, but if the district has enough notice, then teachers can plan something meaningful for students to do.

Trager has been in education for 35 years. For 25 of those, he was a teacher. For eight, he was a principal. He is in his second year as superintendent of Coon-Rapids Bayard, and still, he said, he loves a snow day. He knows students do too.

“From a practical standpoint, kids like snow days so we don’t necessarily want to take that away if we have the ability to make those days up at the end of the year,” he said. “We’re also looking at pretty high staff stress levels this year, and with everything going on … the sooner we can get this year behind us and get back to normal the better.”

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