Like other schools in Burin Region, Marystown Central High School and Sacred Heart Academy were empty Thursday. It was the sixth time, in some cases more, since the Christmas break ended Jan. 6 schools had been closed for weather or road condition-related reasons. Paul Herridge Photo
Snow days are most often greeted by students, and perhaps a few teachers, with a cheer.
But should parents be concerned when the number of cancellations starts to add up?
As of Friday morning, Eastern School District confirmed schools in Burin Region have been closed six full days since students returned from the Christmas vacation Jan. 3.
Most schools in the area were closed for part of Tuesday and all of Wednesday and Thursday last week. Schools in Grand Bank and Fortune were again closed all day on Friday, while St. Joseph’s Academy in Lamaline was open in the morning but shut down for the afternoon.
For high school students, it threw a monkey wrench in their mid-term exam schedules.
There has also been a professional development day for teachers during the month.
Granted, the weather has been a tad rough, but enough to miss this much school?
SAFETY TOP PRIORITY
Eastern School District president and CEO Dr. Bruce Vey said the safety of students is paramount when decisions are made whether to shut down schools during winter.
He said ensuring students arrive to school and return home is the top priority.
“Given the weather conditions that we’ve been dealing with, those decisions are taken very seriously. So you’re looking at weather conditions, and consequently, you’re looking at road conditions.”
Of the six cancelled days in Burin Region this month, Dr. Vey indicated five have been due primarily to the weather with slippery roads cancelling out the other.
While the Eastern School District makes the decision for schools in the St. John’s metro region, he said senior employees at the board office in Burin, in consultation with principals at peninsula schools, call the shots locally.
“The decision is made based on the latest and most accurate weather forecast.
“Once the decision is made, you can’t second guess yourself. The decision has to stand, and that’s important because we have to communicate that message to parents, in a timely manner, so that they can make the appropriate arrangements, particularly around childcare.”
WILL MAKE IT UP
Likewise, Education Minister Clyde Jackman echoed Dr. Vey’s concerned around safety.
“It’s better to be cautionary when it comes to having children in a bus on a road.”
Mr. Jackman, himself a former teacher and administrator, recalled one year when the school he was working at closed a dozen times between January and March.
“I think teachers and administrators recognize that there is loss at this time of year, and they become more focused on the curriculum that they missed.”
Dr. Vey acknowledged there is a concern about how missed instructional time can be made up any time schools are closed due to an unforeseen circumstance.
At this point in time, he said the number of lost days isn’t a major concern but one to be monitored going forward.
“I fully have every confidence that between the school administration and the teachers, they would make up that lost instructional time. They would review their course content and try to make sure that all the outcomes are covered.”
‘THROW AWAY DAYS’
Dr. Paul Bennett refers to teaching days lost due to winter weather as ‘throw aways’, and he strongly believes students are hurt by the missed instructional time.
An educational consultant in Nova Scotia, Dr. Bennett has worked in three different provinces, also on both the teacher and administration side of the equation, including presently as a professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.
“I call them ‘throw away days’ because teachers spend so much time preparing lessons and activities for kids but the oddest thing happens when school is cancelled. It’s like it never happened. You just carry on.”
Dr. Bennett authored ‘School’s Out, Again’, for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, or AIMS, in April 2010, responding to a report written by retired superintendent Dr. James Gunn on ‘Storm School Days’, commissioned by Nova Scotia’s Department of Education.
Since then, he has monitored school weather closures and often comments on the subject.
In his research, Dr. Bennett found schools in the Eastern School District had been closed because of stormy weather between 4.5 and 12 days during 2008-09.
He said closing schools due to bad weather is something that happens far more in Atlantic Canada than in other regions of the country.
In fact, his 2010 commentary pointed out, up to that time, the largest public board in Winnipeg, M.B., reported it has not cancelled a class for weather since April 1957.
In other areas, like York, Ont. for instance, he said school is never ‘really’ closed.
“The teachers are expected to go to the nearest school in their jurisdiction. The schools are open. The parents and kids are given advisories as to whether it’s safe to actually make the trek.
“But in Ontario, it’s much more common to say the schools are safe sanctuaries, and that’s it.”
Dr. Bennett indicated bus companies and the nature of their contracts can also be a factor in whether schools are closed.
He said it’s only in the past decade schools have been shuttered in advance of a forecasted storm.
He indicated in some U.S. jurisdictions, teachers and the boards are expected to make up every school day that is cancelled beyond five days.
Among his 2010 recommendations was to guarantee parents and students a minimum number of teaching days for year.
“The only way to get to that would be to say that after five days you’re replacing them at the end of the year or you’re forfeiting a professional development day.
“I’m not in favour of cancelling the holidays. I think it’s better to get rid of one professional development day at a time.”
He noted some other school boards in the U.S. Midwest insist every student be assigned online homework in the event school is cancelled due to weather.
“If you lose, at the very least, five days in any school year, I think it would be quite legitimate to expect all of those lessons would be delivered online.”