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Virtual classes allow school districts to do away with traditional snow days

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A long-held school tradition is evolving. A growing number of school districts are doing away with traditional snow days. They're instead having kids learn from home. Kate Grumke of St. Louis Public Radio reports.

KATE GRUMKE, BYLINE: In states that get snow, the dark days of winter used to come with a fun upside for some students and teachers - possible snow days when school is canceled. In St. Louis, snow days used to sound like this for the Obermark family.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Wow.

GRUMKE: But this year, the family's school district is one of a handful here that aren't planning to issue traditional snow days. Instead, Carter Obermark will be expected to log on to his fourth-grade classes and learn from home.

CARTER OBERMARK: Then by the time we're done, it'll probably be dark outside, and we won't get to play in the snow.

GRUMKE: Carter's mom, Lauren Obermark, is feeling nostalgic about the change.

LAUREN OBERMARK: I don't know why we would make a choice that feels kind of like we're being punished.

GRUMKE: This is happening all across the country. Last year, almost 40% of school officials said their district had converted snow days to virtual learning days. This year, school officials have announced plans to do away with traditional snow days in New York City, Naperville, Ill., and Provo City, Utah, among other places. Other districts are doing a mix of snow days and online instruction. Dan Domenech, who heads the American Association of School Administrators, says it's a growing trend.

DAN DOMENECH: And I think that the pandemic and the remote learning acceleration and improvement is leading now to schools looking at the school calendar in a very different way and basically looking at learning as something that can take place anytime, anywhere.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Rethinking Spinosaurus.

GRUMKE: Denean Steward is the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the Ritenour School District in the suburbs of St. Louis. She's scrolling through a virtual homeroom with a list of students represented by icons like a horse, a tiger and a dinosaur.

DENEAN STEWARD: Yeah, they chose that, so that's engaging the student as well (laughter).

GRUMKE: Steward says there's an upside to getting rid of traditional snow days. For instance, students won't have to make up days at the end of the year. Steward also says that after multiple years of learning losses, students really need to keep up with school.

STEWARD: So it's very important to make sure that every day we use that as an opportunity for learning as much as possible.

GRUMKE: Kristina Erby-Carr teaches first grade in Steward's district and notes that virtual instruction is a lot better now than it was in the early days of the pandemic. She says the virtual snow day schedule they're adopting is shorter and still leaves kids time to play outside. Last year, she even found ways to incorporate snow into virtual class.

KRISTINA ERBY-CARR: We had a virtual snowball fight and the kids really loved it. So we took paper and we balled up and we threw it at the screen (laughter). So just trying to make sure that it's fun so that the kids are not feeling like they're missing out on something.

GRUMKE: Emily Hubbard's four children attend St. Louis Public Schools. She understands the pressure to keep learning going but still laments the loss of snow days.

EMILY HUBBARD: I just think you lose a lot for the teachers, for the families, when you don't get that element of surprise.

GRUMKE: Hubbard's son Jonas said virtual learning went fine for him in fifth grade, but he's still not happy with this change.

JONAS HUBBARD: I was sad because I like to play in snow days, but if they're virtual, then you don't get any time to play.

GRUMKE: Jonas says if this becomes a permanent shift, he decided he just won't tell younger kids about the fun of snow days so they don't know what they're missing out on.

For NPR News, I'm Kate Grumke. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kate Grumke