Around the St. Louis area on Feb. 15, students woke to a blanket of snow covering the ground. A list of school closures scrolled across the bottom of TV news stations. This year, announcements for remote learning made an appearance on the bottom of the screen as well.
School districts across the country have adapted to online learning in the face of COVID-19. But with this year’s snowy weather, these districts are faced with a question: will remote learning put an end to the traditional snow day?
Emily Gentemann is a graduate student at Webster University and a fourth-grade teacher at Dewey International Studies – part of the St. Louis Public School district. She felt schools will shift to virtual days during inclement weather moving forward.
“I think once we started virtual teaching and virtual learning, we are stuck there,” Gentemann said. “I think the day of snow days is kind of lost and in the past, especially because students now have all that access to technology and the resources are there. So why wouldn’t we utilize it?”
Basiyr Rodney, an associate professor of educational technology at Webster, said he also believes snow days are changing. He said the pandemic helped school districts realize students can learn outside of a school building. COVID-19 has shown students can learn and complete work from home.
Missouri requires students receive at least 174 days of education during the school year. Gentemann and Rodney agree turning snow days into virtual days will keep schools from losing educational time. Gentemann said this remote option will keep schools from needing to make up days later.
Despite the flexibility remote days offer, Rodney said he also sees the appeal of snow days. He said snow days give children the opportunity to get outside and play.
“I mean we were all under snow, so it doesn’t have to be, ‘let’s learn math.’ We’re distracted by what’s happening outside. So go outside, enjoy outside and then come back in,” Rodney said, “after a cup of hot chocolate or something, and then we can talk about the subject matter and maybe how this connects to the subject matter.”
Gentemann said getting extra personal time to relax during snow days provided a mental health day for teachers and students alike. However, she thought the benefits of keeping students engaged and finishing the school year made losing a surprise off day acceptable.
“As a teacher right now, we are very tired and exhausted and drained, but we are here to do what’s best for kids,” Gentemann said. “What is best for kids is to keep them engaged and keeping them learning. Virtually right now, though, that is the biggest hurdle that we are all working on.”
For Gentemann, her biggest challenge with remote learning is keeping students engaged. She said students would be engaged when the class worked through a lesson together. However, she said difficulties arise when she gives students time to work on assignments alone. Only about a third of the class gets the work done before the group call resumes, according to Gentemann.
“They’re distracted because when they unmute, you hear so much going on around them,” Gentemann said. “The difference of being in school and at home is just a drastic thing for them that they aren’t, they know that they have an assignment, but they don’t complete it.”
Gentemann said students can have trouble finding the motivation to complete assignments when they are at home. She has worked to overcome this challenge by creating rewards when students are active and complete their work. Sometimes, Gentemann said it is helpful to reach out to parents for help keeping a student involved.
But working from home during remote days is difficult or impossible for some families, according to Rodney. He said flexible learning options, such as virtual classes or a four-day school week, can benefit students.
Rodney said this is because varying educational opportunities can help students with different learning styles and needs. However, he said some students face connectivity issues. Along with this, Rodney said not all districts have the resources to train teachers for a remote format, and childcare can also be a challenge for families.
“So we have to start thinking about if society were to become truly more flexible, more human, more child centered, more focused on the people we claim we’re trying to prepare for our future,” Rodney said. “There are lots of other structural things that have very little to do with the actual hardware of technology that we have to find a way around.”
Rodney felt we should completely rethink how we have structured school. He said he knows teachers who work in districts that have shifted to four days a week. In these places, Rodney said families are working through the extra day of childcare and, in many cases, are using the extra day to spend time together.
“Now more than ever, we should all understand the value of that fundamental human need,” Rodney said. “That it’s not just that always about being busy, whether it’s work or your employment or your schooling. It’s also about connecting with each other.”