In January, Melrose schools adopted a pilot program changing the policy for snow days, replacing makeup days in case of cancellation with remote assignments. The city became the third community in the area to try a "blizzard bags" policy, behind Burlington and Wakefield.
"Overall, we think the first time out it went relatively well," said Melrose Superintendent Cyndy Taymore, after school was cancelled Thursday, March 8. "For the very first time, we were pleased."
The Melrose School Committee made some significant changes to its blizzard bag policy between November, when it rejected an initial plan, and January, when it finally adopted the pilot. Taymore said further changes will most likely be in order, as the district uses feedback from parents, students, and teachers to shape the program.
Other communities, in Massachusetts and farther north, have grappled with many of the same issues Melrose will have to address, but each district that adopts the blizzard bag program will ultimately have to craft a policy that’s right for it.
Ipswich won't likely adopt the "blizzard bags" or, as the state calls them, an "alternative structured learning day program," any time soon.
“I don’t support blizzard bags,” said Tracy Wagner, Ipswich’s director of teaching and learning. “I’ve never seen research to show they support continued student learning. They’re more of a way to meet the state’s 180-day requirement without educating anyone."
Proponents argue that assignments, which are prepared in advance and completed by students when classes are cancelled, can be valuable educational exercises, especially when supplemented by teachers being available online to answer questions. That scenario is preferable, they say, to the policy still used in most districts: tacking on an extra day at the end of the year, when many students can concentrate on nothing but the impending summer vacation.
In Melrose and elsewhere, supporters have explicitly linked blizzard bags with efforts to expand remote learning opportunities, and take better advantage of digital resources. Wakefield, for example, lists "distance learning on school cancellation days" as part of an initiative it calls the "Learn Anywhere Project."
The district also uses the Internet to offer high school electives in partnership with other schools, and personalized summer learning programs.
Some object that blizzard bag assignments cannot take the place of a full day of school with face-to-face instruction. That concern is especially relevant to parents of students on Individualized Education Programs due to special needs.
In Melrose, similar concerns helped defeat the initial push for blizzard bags, and administrators addressed special education students specifically the second time around.
"We made arrangements for kids who are on IEPs to have extra services if we have multiple consecutive days off," said Taymore.
Under the policy, only the first day of such stretches would count as blizzard bag days, with the second and subsequent snow days needing to be made up at the end of the year.
A number of homes lost power in the March 8 storm, raising the issue of Internet access, both temporary and short term. Some families do not have regular Internet service at home. For those who do, even when the lights stay on there may only be so much access to go around, as multiple students try to use a limited number of devices.
"For me it's an equity issue,” Wagner said, who noted the system assumes students will have parents at home to help them with the assignments, have access to the Internet and have access to a computer. "Parents may not speak English or not as a first language and the child needs to work and needs some guidance."
The home may not even have electricity, as has been the case with hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts homes during the past two storms, with no telling what the toll the third storm might have taken.
Some of those issues have made Melrose administrators consider depending less on digital means of accessing assignments.
"We recognize that everyone has different circumstances at home," said Taymore. "It is part of the thinking. We’re encouraging staff if necessary to hand out assignments."
The right fit
In New Hampshire, where blizzard bags originated, the state’s Department of Education provides firm guidelines for districts wishing to participate. Districts can employ a maximum of five blizzard bag days per school year, and must allot at least five more days at the end of the year to make up further snow days.
A minimum of 80 percent of a given district’s students must complete their assignments in order for the day to count, and all plans must be approved by the commissioner of the New Hampshire DOE.
In Massachusetts, districts have more leeway in designing their own blizzard bag policies, which the state refers to as "alternative structured learning day programs."
"We do not have a statewide policy about this, and we don’t have any plan to, but districts are free to pursue such initiatives if they so choose," said Jacqueline Reis, media relations coordinator at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "Districts do not need our approval to create an alternative structured learning day program."
If the state does eventually set rules for blizzard bags, Reis said, they would likely begin with guaranteeing accommodations for special-ed students.
"The special education area is one we’ll be looking into more as we learn how districts are using alternative structured learning time opportunities," said Reis.
As for the ubiquity of Internet access, she added, "that is something the district would have to consider when weighing how and whether to have alternative structured learning days."
Massachusetts districts are free to institute a minimum compliance policy like New Hampshire’s, but Melrose has gone in the opposite direction, explicitly declining to penalize students who do not complete their assignments. The district has been planning a shift toward competency-based education, which places more responsibility on students to direct their own learning, and sees blizzard bags as another opportunity to move toward that goal.