Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

February 27, 2014

Snow way to plan


The Andover Townsman

---- — School districts in New Hampshire and Massachusetts have some homework to do before starting the next school year.

As winter grinds on, schools in both states are plowing through snow days at an alarming rate.

Safety must be the overriding factor when superintendents are making the call on whether to cancel classes when storms hit. And hit they have this winter. Residents and highway crews have barely been able to dig out from one snowstorm before the next looms ominously on the horizon.

It’s New England, it’s winter, it’s to be expected.

But so, too, should school officials be expected to plan ahead.

Andover did. It built five snow days into its school calendars. So did North Andover. That preparation pays off. The school years won’t have to be extended in both communities unless Mother Nature continues her unrelenting attack well into March.

Other districts aren’t so lucky — or as thoughtful.

Methuen and many others already have acknowledged the academic year will be extended later into June to make up for the days when snow kept classrooms empty.

There’s a pattern here — and not just a weather pattern. The situation districts now find themselves in is a familiar one — and it could get worse, even for those schools that did plan for inclement weather.

No one wants to be in school in late June, when the grass is green, the streets clear and the classroom air ripe from too many days trapped inside.

Making the call too far ahead of a storm is risky. If the storm doesn’t materialize, the superintendent often becomes the brunt of criticism for making a decision too quickly.

The reverse is also true. Guess what happens when that same superintendent opts to ring the bell and hold classes, only to have a storm change course or intensify? The superintendent is the target of concerned and angry parents, who would rather have let the kids sleep in than risk a ride home on slick roads.

But it’s not a lose-lose situation. Building snow days into the academic calendar gives superintendents a bit of a cushion, not unlike a soft fall into a fluffy pile of new snow.

If winter turns out to be mild and school buses roll without interruption, everyone’s happy. The calendar banked on five stormy days. If they’re not needed, then school ends early and everyone gets a jump-start on summer.

Build in a contingency plan and celebrate if you don’t need it.

New Hampshire schools have another option — blizzard bags. It’s one districts ought to consider implementing. And officials in Massachusetts might do well to look north and consider adopting their own version of blizzard bag days, too.

Blizzard bag days are snow days with a twist. No one is physically in school, so travel risk is eliminated. Teachers and students can spend the day in their pajamas and no one will object.

But students are expected to do schoolwork. They are given assignments to complete when snow keeps them at home, most of it done online. Teachers are available through email and sometimes by phone to answer questions. Teachers must also do their homework in advance, preparing lessons and assignments for a snow day.

If 80 percent of the students in a school complete their work, the school doesn’t have to make up the day. It’s been an option for New Hampshire schools for about five years, but few take advantage of it. They should.

Winter will always mean snow and snow will always lead to cancellations. But school officials could plan better and take advantage of a program that makes sense for New England. Everyone will be grateful they did come June.