Well, another Ides of March has come and gone, and if you were like most “home stayed” Nova Scotians who did not find themselves sitting on a sunny beach somewhere, March 15th probably found you shoveling out from underneath yet another downright disheartening snow storm. And even as I cussed the heavens for dropping snow from the sky, (and cussed the plow driver for dropping snow into my drive), the teacher in me found at least a bit of solace in the timing of this wintry blast.
At least it is March Break, and I do not have to hear another round of over inflated, over emphasized, and finally waning discourse about snow days.
I have been writing about education for a few years now, and I can recall few issues of such little substance which have caused as much consternation. Despite the fact that it snows every year in Nova Scotia, despite the fact that schools are closed to keep students safe, and despite the fact that a 2009 government based study found that the school year had been lengthened in the ’70s to allow for five snow days, this winter, it seems, everyone, from newspaper editors to local news anchors has had something to say about snow days.
The Minister of Education was certainly all fired up. She appeared in late February to be suggesting that she might open schools on Saturday or the March break to make up lost time. One Atlantic Institute of Market Studies (AIMS) commentator proposed the idea of “blizzard bags” and on-line schooling to fill the gap. Finally, there was the ever-present “I don’t get snow days, so why should teachers“, and “Back in my day, we went to school on Saturday. It didn’t do me no harm” folks who took to the airways and radio call in shows in what seemed like record numbers to decry a practice which is, at its heart, about keeping kids safe.
And that’s the rub of all this. I may not have been particularly impressed by the Minister’s latest round of seemingly anti-teacher trash talking, and I have no use at all for AIMS, but I can’t believe either wishes their diatribes to result in an injury to a child. As well, I must believe that common sense will, at some point, prevail. The Minister can talk about school on Saturdays and on March break as much as she wants, but anyone with any sense realizes that these options will prove more trouble than they are worth. And as far as the “Blizzard Bags” and “E-learning” days, only someone far removed from the classroom, (and perhaps reality) could actually conclude that these ideas will really impact student learning.
However, next winter will come, and with it, school closures, and the critics will again be there to make ridiculous parallels between snow days and student achievement. “How can we be expected to compete” they will cry, “If schools are closed?” And when this latest round of somewhat asinine educational commentary reached a feverish pitch a few weeks ago I found myself thinking a great deal about snow days.
“What if this were actually a thing?” I wondered “If Nova Scotians are actually concerned about school closures and lost time because of snow days, what, practically, can be done?”
The solution is actually exceptionally simple.
Back in August, (sigh, remember August?) I penned a piece about the possibility of having Nova Scotia move from its current five-day school schedule to four. In this system, schools would add a few minutes at the end of each day to ensure students received the appropriate amount of instructional time, and would only open from Monday until Thursday. If a holiday happened to fall on, say, a Tuesday, then school would be held on Friday in that particular week.
At the time, I was really just pontificating on the idea, inspired to consider it by a variety of moves in the private sector towards flexible scheduling for employees, and by the reported benefits that such a move could have on a work force. However, a number of things have happened in the last six months or so that has me looking at the idea with a fresh set of eyes.
One thing was, of course, The Great Snow Day Kerfuffle of ‘Ought Fifteen. Allowing that all the noise made about snow days was actually about students losing time, the four-day week seems to offer a reasonable solution. If schools were traditionally only running from Monday to Thursday, and it snowed on Tuesday, time could simply be made up on Friday. The kids still get their four days, and no one dies on the way to school because of bureaucratic nonsense.
But, it is not just for its potential to finally stop the annual snow day debate that has me rethinking the 4 day school week. In October I had a chance to speak with two teachers from a school district in British Columbia, (District 51, to be exact) that actually follows the four-day schedule. They spoke with me to great lengths about how the process had unfolded there, and how successful it had been. For starters, the district saw almost immediate financial gains. These ranged from significant savings in student transportation costs to a modest reduction in utility bills and maintenance. However, a real and surprising cost benefit came in the form of a reduction in staff absenteeism. Not only were staff able to make week day appointments that under the five-day system may have forced them to take a day off work, folks seemed to, quite simply, need fewer sick days. The longer weekend breaks, it seems, proved beneficial to the overall well-being of staff.
The kids, apparently, made out OK as well. Younger students adapted quickly to the longer days, and some were quite happy, particularly in the rural areas, to take that long bus ride home one less day per week. As to the older kids who might be holding down jobs, local employers adjusted their schedules accordingly, and the Friday gave the kids another full day to work. Sports organizations adapted, and having Friday as a day to compete without missing school certainly took some pressure off student athletes. There were anecdotal reports about both attendance and behaviour improving under the four-day system, and finally, there are a number of studies that show a four-day schedule has no negative impact on student achievement, and may actually have a positive effect.
One can not consider a four-day week without considering the concerns it raises about childcare, which, if we are being honest, is one of the key elements in the snow day issue. However, once again, the standard concerns one would imagine have worked themselves out. Parents found that the increased cost of Friday was offset by an often reduced bill from Monday to Thursday. As well, with every child in the district home on Fridays, child care, either in the form of a stay-at-home-parent or an older student babysitter, was easily accessible.
So happy parents, happier kids, healthier teachers, and no negative impact on student achievement.
Kind of blows the whole “blizzard bag” idea out of the water, doesn’t it?
Snow storms are going to happen, and even with a four-day week, there may be the odd back-to-back closings that, for the safety of kids, are unavoidable. But if we are truly serious about the impact of lost time in schools, let’s look at solutions that could actually address the problem.
If we are not, let’s stop giving air time to issues that only serve only the needs of political posturing and the likes of those who want to comment on education simply to hear themselves speak.
“Blizzard bags” indeed.