Blizzard Bag Discussion Begins – Will We Have Alternative Learning Time Assignments This Year?

At last evening’s School Committee Meeting we began discussing the possibility of once again allowing students to complete assignments outside of school and having these assignments count for days missed due to extensive absences due to snow or other unforeseen circumstances. This initiative, which we called Blizzard Bags last year, was piloted across our district after receiving the go-ahead from our School Committee. 
The two slideshows below highlight the survey results of parents and staff members who responded. We had 221 staff members respond and 444 parents. Whether you responded or not, there is still time to provide your comments on this initiative and let us know whether you would like to see something similar in the future. This topic will be on the School Committee Agenda once again at our next School Committee Meeting on October 13. 
Nearly 70-percent of our parents would approve of a similar undertaking if the assignments were given on the day that their students miss school while over 90-percent of teachers also would support alternative learning assignments if they were structured differently from last year.

Due to this feedback on the surveys, we are certain the the following changes would be made if we continue with a similar undertaking this year:

  • The initiative will be called something other than Blizzard Bags since there are no bags involved and we could potentially miss school for something other than snow.
  • The assignments will be given on the day that school is missed (not afterwards as we did last year). In addition, the students would receive a brief window to complete the work and it would not be expected immediately upon return to school.
Please feel free to comment here in the comment section if you have questions or input that you would like to add to this discussion. We look forward to a decision on whether or not we will implement alternative assignments during our October School Committee Meetings.

Blizzard Bags Making News Across North America

As we were discussing Blizzard Bags at work this past week, I noticed my phone had an incoming call from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia. Since we were in a meeting, I let the call go to voicemail. Ironically, when I checked the message a bit later, the call was from to discuss Blizzard Bags.  The call was from Paul Bennett, a professor and consultant from Canada who has spent some time on this topic. Mr. Bennett has voiced concerns for quite a while on the need for schools to ensure continuity for students when bad weather interferes. He wrote a piece back in 2010 titled Schools Out, Again: Why “throw-away’ school days hurt students where he cited concerns regarding lost time due to weather in the Province of Nova Scotia.

Anyway, here are a few of the stories regarding Blizzard Bags that have been in the news over the past week:

“Blizzard bags” make for a smart snow day – Halifax Herald, Paul Bennett (A lot of comments)

Pondering School Work For Snow Days…What The Heck Is A Blizzard Bag?

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It is old news by this point that we have had a decade’s worth of snow this winter in the Greater Boston area.  In the last few weeks, we have had three times more snow than we did during the historic Blizzard of 1978. While many schoolchildren are thrilled to have missed multiple days of school (five here in Burlington), the thoughts of administrators have turned to making up some of these days prior to the dog days of June.  Here in Massachusetts, our district will pilot “Blizzard Bags” in an attempt to reduce some of the make-up days that now have us in school until Thursday, June 25. 

What are Blizzard Bags?

I have to admit that I was unfamiliar with the term Blizzard Bag when I first heard it and was unaware that the practice of employing Blizzard Bags to compensate for snow days is something that has been happening in states like Minnesota, Ohio and New Hampshire for a few years. In fact, I have started to bookmark sites of districts using this practice to get some ideas about how this works.  In all honesty, I have been underwhelmed with what I have found thus far on many of the sites. Many of the samples are simply worksheets that students would do independently and would fall short of the definition of structured learning time articulated by Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitchell Chester in one of his weekly updates below:

The Department has received inquiries regarding so-called “blizzard bags,” assigned work sent home with students in advance of an expected storm. In many cases, this work appears to be very similar to normal homework assignments; there is educational value, but it does not necessarily meet the standard for structured learning time. For this approach to count toward the student learning time requirements, school districts must ensure that such work is structured learning time, is substantial, and has appropriate oversight and teacher involvement.  

Blizzard Bags in Burlington 

As expected, we have received numerous inquiries from parents and news media about our Blizzard Bag proposal which must be approved by both the Burlington School Committee and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In all honesty, we have not yet articulated what the work will be that students will be asked to do in grades K-12.  The plans will be constructed over the next month or so and then brought forth to our School Committee.  

While I can’t tell you specifically what our Blizzard Bags will be, I can tell you some of the qualities I think these assignments should have.  But before, I go down that path I think it is important that we recognize this wonderful opportunity we have before us. We have been presented with a chance to discuss learning and the countless activities that we could offer students to learn outside of our schools. We need to embrace this collaborative endeavor and ensure that we include staff, students, parents, and others with experience in this type of endeavor in the planning. Lastly, we need to be honest with ourselves regarding the fact that this will not be perfect. Some of the learning opportunities that we create will work well and others will not.  But isn’t that what happens as we plan lessons during our 180-day school year anyway?

So here are a few of the opportunities that I think Blizzard Bags should provide students…

  • Independence
  • Collaboration
  • Hands-on
  • Digital learning
  • Inquiry
  • Teacher Feedback 
  • Peer Feedback
While I could continue with more examples, the point here is that these assignments should allow for choices by students and staff. They should not be worksheet-driven as a few of the examples I have seen in other districts using Blizzard Bags. In the end, we are attempting to have a learning experience for our students that would be equally as meaningful as a day at the end of June. No offense intended here, but I think we can do much better than that.

Blizzard Bags A Potential Replacement For Some Missed Snow Days

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Back in early January, before we were buried in over four feet of snow, the Burlington School Committee approved further discussion of “Blizzard Bags” for Burlington Public Schools to potentially make up days of schools lost because of snow. Burlington, along with Wayland, is one of two school districts in the state,  that has the approval of the Massachusetts Department of Education to explore an alternative model to making up snow days at the end of the school year.
This pilot program will explore the creation and completion of assignments and projects that students will be able to complete to meet time on learning minutes from school days that are canceled.  Of course the number of days that would be added back in would depend on the amount of work involved in the assignments. However, before going too much more into logistics, it is important to discuss school calendar construction/requirements and Blizzard Bags further.
School Calendar Construction:
State regulations require that the district create a 185 day school-year calendar although only 180 days are mandated.  The five, built-in days allow for up to five days of cancellations within an approved calendar year.  We are currently within our five day allowance already built into our school calendar.  If everything stays as it is (no more cancellations), the school year will end on Thursday, June 25, 2015 (except for seniors).
School Requirements:
Massachusetts requires elementary and middle school students to attend school for 900 hours per school year and high school students 990 hours per school year.  These hours take place over 180 days.  The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has not allowed any exceptions to the 180 requirement in prior years.  The “Blizzard Bag” pilot provides Burlington with the possibility of maintaining the learning hour requirement but over a reduced number of days.
What are Blizzard Bags?
The concept of Blizzard Bags is not new. The practice of assigning work to students to make up snow days is already happening in states like Minnesota, Ohio, and New Hampshire just to name a few.  One difference in some states, like New Hampshire, is that the students are assigned work to do on a snow day and are expected to have it completed when they get back to school. However, this “homework” will not be the option that we will be looking to replicate this year.
Our district is exploring using a model where a sufficient amount of lessons/projects will be developed to equal the amount of instructional time students would have received for the days of school that we are looking to count. Once the assignments are created for all Burlington students, we will create a due-date for their completion. We will continue to offer frequent updates and will have a website with all of the assignments as well as resources to support their successful completion.
We believe that these learning projects will be more educationally relevant than additional worksheets.  We are also exploring ways to leverage the technology that the community provides to extend learning.
Any proposal will require school committee and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education approval.  In addition, there may be working condition considerations in regards to school staff.