Snow days return: NJ schools can’t use remote learning after pandemic
Because New Jersey is in the middle of a public health emergency, school districts have the choice to either institute a snow day due to the Wednesday-Thursday nor'easter impacting the state or keep kids learning remotely so that the day still counts towards the 180 necessary to make a full year.
But once the pandemic is over, districts may never have that chance again.
According to the state's rules, only in-person instruction days can count toward a full year in a post-pandemic New Jersey.
"When we are no longer under this public health emergency, the authorization to use virtual/remote instruction in lieu of a snow day will only apply if the district is closed for more than three consecutive school days due to a declared state of emergency, declared public health emergency, or a directive by the appropriate health agency or officer to institute a public health-related closure," the Department of Education told New Jersey 101.5 in an email.
The exception for future health-related events is spelled out in a law signed by Gov. Phil Murphy in April.
When Pascack Valley Regional High School tried to have a "virtual day" count as a full day in 2014, the state rejected the idea. State education officials at the time called it innovative, but said it couldn't count as an official school day because state law also required school facilities be available. Ninety-six percent of students and every staff member logged in that day, according to Superintendent Erik Gunderson.
Snow days here to stay
Freehold Regional schools Superintendent Charles Sampson says the traditional snow day is alive and well for the high schools in Colts Neck, Freehold Borough, Freehold Township, Howell, Manalapan and Marlboro.
"If we need to call a day due to inclement weather it will be a snow day at this point in time. If we use up our allotted snow days, then we would turn to a remote instruction day," Sampson told New Jersey 101.5.
Before the pandemic, there was a push for schools to offer online learning during bad weather so they would not have to miss a day of in trying to reach the state's 180-day requirement.
"The context of that was, once in a while we have an inclement weather day. Wouldn't it be awesome if we didn't have to discontinue learning because we have this technology that's now available to do learning from home?" Sampson said Wednesday.
Sampson said some students in his district have been learning online for several hours a day since March.
"Our remote learning is robust and what that means is that kids are in front of screens for four, five, six hours a day. At this point in time we don't see anything wrong in giving a kid a break from that for one day for bad weather," Sampson said.
Many New Jersey schools announced that Thursday would be a full day of online learning including, Jackson, Manchester, Roxbury and Toms River.
Letting districts decide
Before this week's storm, Cherry Hill schools Superintendent Joseph Meloche said not to anticipate a snow day
"With our abbreviated daily schedules, there is still time to maintain our continuity of learning, to interact with our teachers and to play and be outside in the snow," Meloche said, adding that a regular day of learning would allow the district to stay on track with scheduled breaks.
The calendar was also on the mind of Manchester schools Superintendent David Trethaway, who told New Jersey 101.5 the district already lost a day to a power outage.
"Just because this one is virtual doesn't mean we won't have a snow day. We're very dependent on computers, so if we lose power we lose a day. Down the road we want to make sure we have enough days," Trethaway said, adding that he does not think the snow day is dead.
"There's something to be said about that free day and the kids going out," he said. "It's not the end for us and if we have some days and there's a bad snowstorm we may think 'that's a snow day' anyway."
At least one group in New Jersey is interested in getting rid of specific exceptions and letting districts make the call on their own in the future.
Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said the group has been pushing, since long before the pandemic, for allowing remote-learning days to be an option for districts that would rather not lose a day of instruction due to inclement weather.
With that right, Bozza said, districts will have a better shot at maintaining a reasonable schedule during a snow-heavy winter. Instead of needing to lengthen the school year due to multiple snow days, or shorten breaks, districts can switch to a remote day and keep their schedules in tact.
"If I have built in three inclement weather days that don't adjust my schedule, what happens when a fourth or fifth or six does?" Bozza said. "I think most people would want to take advantage of a virtual day rather than taking what's typically been called a snow day."
Bozza said if he were still a superintendent and virtual days were an alternative to snow days in the future, he'd likely give kids off on the built-in days, then switch to remote learning for future bad-weather days — he believes a number of superintendents would go this route as well.
According to the New Jersey School Boards Association, the vast majority of school districts in the Garden State build snow days into their calendars.
Bozza said the abilities of New Jersey schools to deliver a remote learning day have improved drastically over the past nine months, so the state is much more prepared than in years past to easily convert an in-person day to a remote day in the event of foul weather.
"I think given our experience during this pandemic, we'll have much greater success talking to that point in the next legislative year," Bozza said.
Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.