Forget Snow Days. How One School District Uses This Time to Teach Students — and Fill Their Bellies As Well

Jason Lee, a Western Kentucky University student from Korea, walks in the falling snow Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Bowling Green, Ky. Photo: Miranda Pederson/Daily News via AP

The snow day. It’s the time to forget about school, plow down a hill on a sled and build a front-yard snowman. It’s a joyful break for communities where snow days consume just a few days of each school year.

And there is evidence that an occasional snow day isn’t going to hurt academic achievement. But in places where snow-clogged roads stall school buses on a routine basis, the loss of classroom time can be a major problem. It’s like the academic losses documented in the so-called “summer slide,” except these are in the winter.

The Owsley County School District in Kentucky started testing virtual snow days, providing home-based lessons when school buildings are closed, about five years ago. This happens when it’s too dangerous for students to travel to school – which occurs about 30 days out of the school year – and educators there say it has been going well. New legislation has allowed nearly 45 more districts in Kentucky to try it.

But supporting a high-quality virtual snow day program isn’t as easy as it might sound.

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When The Hechinger Report last spoke with Owsley County’s superintendent, Timothy W. Bobrowski, in 2014, the district virtual snow days were promising, but imperfect. There were a lot of reasons the district should have said “no” to trying it at all. But the educators there made do, worked toward solutions and have continued to refine the program.

Related: As winter approaches, virtual school replaces snow days in some districts

The school district in Owsley County, one of the poorest communities in the United States, has an advantage over many regions in Appalachia: Most homes have Internet access. The problem in this school district was access to digital devices. Many students said they lacked a reliable computer. Next year, the district, which is a member of the Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools, will give students Chromebook laptops to use at home and at school. The program, which is being paid for largely with grant funding, includes plans for maintaining the devices in the long term and for training teachers.

Another problem solved by the school district wasn’t high tech. When students are at home on a snow day, they don’t have access to free or low-cost school meals. In a place as poor as eastern Kentucky, that often means going hungry. In Owsley County, school leaders discovered that government regulations would only reimburse the schools for meals served when the school buildings were open. The district appealed to the government: The regulations already allowed for summertime school meal programs, so why not in winter?

Today, the district is allowed to drop off meals at several places in the county on virtual school days. The district served about 80 meals last Thursday in public libraries, churches and housing developments. That might not sound like a lot, but there are only about 740 students in this rural school district, and many live in far-flung places that make door-to-door food delivery impractical anyway. To make the most of the school lunch delivery program, the district selected food drop-off points near the places where the neediest children live.

Bobrowski said the students arrived thankful for a school cafeteria meal.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Nichole Dobo

Nichole Dobo writes about blended learning. Most of her 10-year career as a reporter has focused on education. She has also covered stories about government, courts, business and religion. She was a staff writer at The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., The York Daily Record/Sunday News in York, Pa., The Times-Tribune in Scranton, Pa. and The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. and has been published in The Atlantic's online edition. She won first prize and best of show for education writing in 2011 from the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association. She earned a B.A. in journalism at the Pennsylvania State University.