There’s no day like a snow day

Most of us here in Nova Scotia remember what it was like.

Going to bed the evening before, storing spoons under pillows or rubbing our lucky rabbit’s foot or perhaps wishing upon that one bright star, hoping against hope that the next morning would bring that most delicious of announcements.

All schools are cancelled. Snow day.

What followed was an opening up of endless possibilities.  A  feeling of Christmas morning in February. A day stolen from the drudging, droning routine of math class and teacher’s rules.  Snow caked mittens and frozen noses. A blanket and a stack of comic books. Super Slider Snow Skates and an icy, frozen hill.

This was, of course, not everybody’s reality, but it would be hard for anyone to argue that snow days are as much a part of collective Canadian culture as Wayne and Schuster, The Littlest Hobo, and, dare I say it, Peter Puck.

These various references will, of course, only resonate with those of us of a certain age group, and, for the rest of you, well, there is always Google. However, regardless of what  cultural icon gets your own particular patriotic blood flowing, snow days are now, have always been and will remain forever a part of our Great White North winters. Global warming aside, Canuck kids and their parents can look forward to at least a few of these oh-so-anticipated days in every calendar year.

Which is why I often find myself shaking my head when I hear people being up in arms about the practice.

The most recent kerfuffle about the “problem” of snow day cancellations came about when the Minister of Education in New Brunswick Dominic Cardy announced last week that he was considering keeping schools open on some storm days for student who could get there. Speaking with the CBC  Cardy used everything from the financial pressure such closures have on low-income families to the added pressure lost instructional days puts on teachers as a way of criticizing closing schools. His comments sparked several follow-up editorials, and an episode of the CBC radio talk show, Maritime Connection, was entirely dedicated to the topic.

Here in Nova Scotia, we are certainly no strangers to the snow day debate. Back in the winter of 2017, the conversation around school closures reached an almost feverish pitch when CTV ran a story in which AIMS writer Paul Bennett rather arbitrarily determined that the number of school days missed in that particular year was “without a doubt the most serious crisis of lost school days that this province has ever faced.” In the interview, he complained that Nova Scotia was far too quick to shutter its schools in the event of bad weather. Bennett said “This is unusual. In fact, I dare to say no one else does it. No one does it with the frequency we do it.”

Bennett would go on to cite the research of  Josh Goodman, then an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard, as to the damage done by snow days.  He stated that this work showed how any more than five lost days per year is detrimental to student performance, having a particularly negative impact on Math scores. According to the story, “…the professor was shocked to hear from Bennett that Nova Scotia schools regularly meet or exceed that number.”

Goodman’s research, it would turn out, did not actually say that at all. In fact, it said almost exactly the opposite. According to a story from the Washington Post, Goodman had found that the number of days schools were cancelled because of snow in any given year actually had no impact on children’s math scores. Nor did the research find any negative impact on student’s reading scores. What the research did reveal, however, was that keeping schools open on snow days,  when many students may be more likely to not attend, did hurt student achievement. That is because individual absences have a far greater impact upon student academics than general closures.

In what was a rather bizarre twist to that story, professor Goodman would confirm via e-mail that he had “no memory or electronic record” of ever speaking with Bennett. An ensuing Twitter exchange between the two also saw Goodman rather soundly rapping Bennett’s knuckles for completely misrepresenting his findings.

Bennett has provided plenty of writing fodder for me over the years, so I will not belabour that particular point too heavily.  However, the main thrust of Goodman’s work is  worth repeating. When it comes to snow day closures, the kids, it seems academically at least, are no worse for wear when schools are shut down.

The other issue that seems to surface outside of the impact of kids is the contentiousness of what to do with our teachers on such days. Indeed, as many Nova Scotians make the white knuckle drive into work, it is easy to understand a certain amount of resentment towards those of us employed in the public service who are able to ride out the storm at home. There have certainly been many calls for the government to force teachers to report to work on storm days over the years. Most recently, the idea resurfaced in this government’s asking package it presented to teachers the fall of 2015; an asking package which you may remember set in motion a long series of rather unfortunate events.

However, it is worth noting that back in 2009, the Department of Education retained the services of a consulting firm to look broadly at the issue. That report revealed that in 1971, the total number of days in the school calendar was increased from 190 to 195 to anticipate an average of 5 storm days per year. The same report concluded that, across the province, we had experienced 6 storm days on average over the decade examined by the firm. (The unionist in me might argue that teachers in Halifax are owed about twenty days back pay for this time period, for the years where schools were not closed for five days, but I think we are all ok with letting that one slide.)

Now, look, I understand. I am a parent, and there have been enough baby-sitting back outs and unforeseen circumstances that I can certainly empathize with the challenges created by the 6:00 am announcement. As well, I have worked with enough disadvantaged youth to understand that, for some parents, incurring unexpected child care costs is not simply a matter of minor inconvenience. However, the decision to close schools is preeminently about keeping kids safe. Period.

Considering that ultimate goal, a built-in five-day buffer and a zero-sum impact on student achievement, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about.

When it comes to snow days, it would be wise for all of us to remember what could potentially be gained by pushing the weather envelope to keep schools open is no where even close to being worth what could, potentially, be lost.

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald, Saturday, February 23rd.

 

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