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The un-snowday
More NH schools using Blizzard Bag days

03/06/14
By Rebecca Fishow rfishow@hippopress.com



 Snow days are a part of winter. But now, instead of getting a day off to build snowmen and help with the shoveling, some Granite State students are hunkering down at desks and dining room tables to complete their Blizzard Bag assignments. 

New Hampshire superintendents have had the option to declare Blizzard Bag days instead of snow days since 2010, but more districts are getting Department of Education approval to use the program. This year, 21 districts or schools, including Pinkerton Academy, Chester Academy and the Hampstead School District, are using them. 
“We have several new ones this year,” said Judith Fillion, division director at the New Hampshire Department of Education. “There certainly is a lot of interest in it.”
 
How it works 
Essentially, Blizzard Bag days are school days that happen at home when the weather forces schools to close. Students get phone calls and emails from school about the assignments they need to do, and they can be in contact with teachers via the Internet. 
The Hampstead School District started using Blizzard Bag days for the first time this year. They opted to use regular snow days around Christmas break, but since then they’ve used three of their five allotted Blizzard Bag days. 
Hampstead Central School Principal Dillard Collins said teachers prepared lesson plans in September and October that had to be approved by administration as Blizzard Bag material.
“Teachers spend more time preparing for that day than they would have done on that elusive extra day in June,” Collins said. “We saw it as a new challenge that would be setting up standards for the future.”
Designing the assignment works a bit differently, depending on grade level. For kindergarten to fourth-grade students, work focuses on reading and math comprehension skills, Chester Academy Principal Leslie Leahy said. Teachers sometimes gear assignments toward snow themes, so, for example, kids may be asked to measure snowfall at certain intervals and then add up the total accumulation. 
Work for older students tends to be more involved, and if a potential blizzard day is coming up, teachers can replace the pre-designed assignments with work that is more relevant to the curriculum the class is currently working on. Teachers inform students of the changes ahead of time and update the work on the school’s website.
In order for a Blizzard Bag day to be considered a success, 80 percent of students and teachers must participate. When students return to school, teachers collect and grade assignments. Chester Academy determines the percentage this way: If a student completes 100 percent of the work, it counts as a full day, and half-completion equals a half day. If less than half the work is completed, it doesn’t count toward a school day at all, and the student receives a zero on incomplete assignments. 
How the at-home school days affect school employees’ pay varies slightly from district to district. On Blizzard Bag days, most contracted staff, including teachers and administrators, are still working, so pay is not affected. Other contracted employees, like nurses, either take it as a day off or are given work to do, depending on their contracts. Paraeducators either work on these days, make up the work, or do not work, or have the option to take an unpaid day off. Hourly employees like custodians either don’t work and don’t get paid (like on regular snow days) or make other arrangements with their supervisors.
 
Parent and student response
Chester Academy, which calls them cancellation days (because the option can be used for other extreme weather, like floods), saw so much success with the program in its first two years that this year it got approval from the Department of Education for five days instead of three. The school has already used them up, so any more cancellations will have to be tacked on to the end of the school year, Leahy said.
For four of the last five days, well over 90 percent of Chester Academy students completed the work. Hampstead Central School’s participation also has been higher than 90 percent each day.
“The first time we did it, we had more students participate on that day than a typical day,” Collins said.
When Chester Academy piloted the program there was some opposition from parents who did not understand the process, Leahy said. But since then most parents and students have been on board.
“I think some of [the students] really enjoy it, and some parents get into it too. Other students would prefer to be out in the snow playing, but they are reminded by their parents that in the summer they will be playing while other kids are still in school,” Leahy said.  
Collins said the days can pose challenges for parents, too, especially those with younger children, because they need to help make sure the work gets done.
“You’ve got to give it up to the parents,” Collins said. “I had some who had fun at home and others who said this really was a stress on [their] family.”
 
Not for all districts
While the number of schools that opt to use Blizzard Bag days is on the rise, it’s not for every district.
The Contoocook Valley School District used the program for two years before discontinuing it this year. The district faced challenges ensuring that course material was timely and relevant, Superintendent Brenda Minnihan wrote in a letter to parents.
Internet access was also a problem. 
“We had parents who, if they had three or four children, they didn’t necessarily have three or four [Internet-accessible] devices, so it was little more challenging for those families to complete the assignments,” said Kimberly Saunders, assistant superintendent of the Contoocook Valley School District.
Larger districts, including Concord, Manchester and Nashua, haven’t yet used the option either. There had been discussion in the Nashua School District two years ago, but it opted not to go the Blizzard Bag route because of concerns that socioeconomic diversity means that some students may not have access to space and resources needed to complete assignments at home, Nashua School District Superintendent Mark Conrad said.
Conrad said that even if it adds make-up days to the end of the year, they typically don’t push the school year past June 20. But this winter’s weather has caused the district to reconsider the possibility for its senior students, as snow days running up to graduation day could present a problem.
“Because of the nature of the winter, we’ll have to see what March brings. If it’s a March where we only have one or two [snow days] then it won’t be problematic,” Conrad said. “If it’s more, we may begin talking over some options.” 
 
As seen in the March 6, 2014 issue of the Hippo.





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