Kansas Snow Days 'Good For The Soul,' But The Pandemic Means Fewer Of Them Even After 2020

Nov 27, 2020
Originally published on December 1, 2020 1:39 pm

WICHITA, Kansas — Between concerns about schools staying open and the challenges of learning remotely, teachers and students are haunted by another question that goes beyond 2020: Will snow days disappear forever?

Schools invested in both the knowhow and technology to teach students remotely. In the midst of a pandemic, they had no choice.

The resulting capability to hold classes that reached into students’ homes means that heavy snows, slick roads or sub-zero temperatures don’t have to shut down virtual schooling.

But Kansas school districts are reluctant to freeze out the snow day tradition entirely.

For one thing, months of online learning have exposed the practice as less effective than in-person classes. For another, educators embrace those weather-driven, stress-free breaks just like the kids.

“Having those snow days is part of the tradition of being a student, being a teacher,” said Tom Vontz, the director of the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Kansas State University. “Bucking that tradition probably won’t be easy for administrators.”

Snow days snow-more

When Lori Ray’s kids were growing up, they went through all the nighttime rituals in hopes of making a snow day happen. Spoon under the pillow. PJs worn inside out. Flush an ice cube down a toilet.

Now as the superintendent of Parsons District Schools in southeast Kansas, Ray makes the snow day decisions. She’s predicting that in future years, if an especially bad snow storm creeps onto the radar, those students will learn remotely.

“If there was sometime where we knew, ‘OK, we got these three or four days — like Snowemagedon, it’s coming — we’re going to send the devices home,’” Ray said. “Make sure kids have checked out the hotspots if they need them.”

Kansas schools typically build a few snow days into their calendar. But if a stretch of nasty weather keeps kids out of school for long stretches, districts face an equally bad option to make up the time — taking days away from summer vacation.

Beyond those especially bad — and telegraphed — storms, Ray doesn’t expect snow days to go away. Remote classes can’t happen after a sudden snow storm if the kids weren’t sent home with the proper technology.

Plus Ray argues a day of sledding and hot cocoa is worth a missed school day.

“Snow days are magical,” Ray said. “Every kid needs to have a great snow day memory.”

Remote learning’s chilly reception

Ending snow days would mean replacing a beloved tradition with a hated pandemic compromise — remote teaching.

Even after a spring and fall spent teaching kids remotely, school districts still struggle to make learning outside the classroom work. Teaching elementary students can be a particular challenge because those kids can’t work as independently as middle and high school students.

“There doesn’t seem to be a reason you couldn’t do away with snow days,” said Mark Tallman, the associate director for the Kansas Association of School Boards. “But there’s still so much uncertainty about how effective that is.”

Instead, giving students that surprise day off and the mental relief that comes with it could be better than any remote lessons.

El Dorado Public Schools took advantage of that last month for its first snowfall — while this winter looks like it will be warmer than normal, Kansas received some early snow this year. The district declared a snow day, even for the students that were learning remotely. Putting away the textbooks and laptop to watch the roads turn white became a short break from a stressful semester.

“Everybody needed a little bit of that normalcy,” said Teresa Tosh, the El Dorado superintendent. “It was good for our soul.”

Remote learning will likely mean fewer snow days for El Dorado kids, but not a total end to the spontaneous holidays.

“Sometimes kids need to go outside and make a snowman,” Tosh said. “Sledding is not a bad thing.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

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