Snowmageddon: The Lessons of Snow Days

This winter in Boston has been one for the record books. The city has had more snow pile up in the last few weeks than all winters on record, save one.  Even more unbelievably, the six feet of snow that have fallen this season has really taken place over just an 18-day stretch – since the end of January. The amount of snow, combined with the narrow streets and sidewalks that give Boston its charm –at least in warmer weather—have meant that traveling around the city, by foot, car, or public transit, has been challenging (to say the least).
School officials in Boston—as well as several other larger districts in the state—have had no choice but to cancel school for several days because it has been simply unsafe for students to get to school. With seven snow days used by early February, the district has already exceeded the legally required buffer of five extra days built into every school calendar in the state to accommodate potential lost days due to snow.  Boston has announced that it will be canceling two scheduled days off—one in March, one in June—in order to make up for lost snow days.  But the last day of school is still set to be June 30, and any further snow days will necessitate more drastic action on the part of the school district. As you may recall, it is a situation that many districts in the Midwest dealt with last year.
The reason why Boston and other Massachusetts districts must take these extraordinary measures to make up lost days of school is that the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Commissioner Mitchell Chester have been wisely unwavering in their commitment to the 180-day school year. No waivers will be granted to provide students anything less than their legally required right to a full school year.
But, as the Boston Globe notes, “Schools are still trying to figure out how to maximize the amount of instructional time students get.” In other words, if schools are really to be fulfilling their obligation to educate, the focus cannot be on meeting some essentially arbitrary quantities of time in school. The reason for providing enough days of school has to be about advancing student learning. And this is what makes snow days worse than simply a lost day of school. Students and teachers lose not only time spent on particular lessons, unplanned interruptions to the flow of the curriculum can also often have the effect of suspending a sense of progress towards larger learning goals. 
In the midst of this mini-educational crisis that has now settled on New England in the form of giant snow drifts, I was pleased to see signs that some educators are using this crisis as an opportunity. For one, the district of Boston has begun—as a result of the prolonged absences from school—a digital learning library that has posted a wide range of learning resources online for access when students are stuck at home. The idea is that they can continue their class work, even when not at school. While use of this online resource is so far still relatively light, the fact that the central administration is being proactive about offsetting the ill-effects of being away from school is certainly a positive. More importantly, it opens the door to realize that learning need not be confined to brick-and-mortar classrooms. Learning can and should take place in multiple settings and through various means.
A second positive omen comes in comments made by the superintendent of Fitchburg Public Schools, a district in central Massachusetts that has also lost several instructional days to snow over the last three weeks. The Globe reports that Superintendent Andre Ravenelle has indicated that the whole school calendar as it has been organized over the last century in America needs re-thinking. As he notes, much more consequential than the number of days on the calendar spent in school is the amount of time spent learning. In our experience, often the first step to thinking about the need for more school time comes when educators are pushed to realize that the conventional quantities of school time—along with the rather arbitrary way in which these quantities have become the standard—are not really serving the learning needs of many students. 
In the end, these developments signal to me that the snow that has descended in such frightful amounts upon New England in the last few weeks has given rise to more than frustration. Instead, for some educators, the effect of the snow has been to spark innovation and reflection—two fundamental processes in the movement to break from the traditional school calendar. So, at NCTL, we can only hope that when spring comes and the piles of snow melt away to nothing, the drive to improve the status quo approach to learning time has become a permanent part of the landscape.