Why snow days will be for sledding, not schooling in Wichita

Logistics, state laws and a bit of nostalgia factor into Wichita Public Schools’ decision to give students a true day off during snow days instead of pivoting to remote learning.

by Maria Benevento

Dangerous temperatures, snowy roads and slick sidewalks can hold an upside for school kids: a snow day. 

But after its experience with online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wichita Public Schools had to discuss whether students should join class remotely when wintry conditions keep them home, said Fabian Armendariz, who leads the district’s weather team.

The district decided not to foul snow days by adding school.

In Wichita and several neighboring districts, students can still spend their snow days sledding, building snowmen or curled up with a mug of hot chocolate. 

Logistical issues with getting students online — making sure they have computer access and home broadband — and adapting lesson plans at the last minute drove the decision.

Some schools also considered a 2021 Kansas law limiting remote learning and the fact that districts already build in extra days to account for weather-related closures. 

And Wichita Public Schools got nostalgic about the “coziness” of snow days, Armendariz said. 

“This is also a little bit of a morale boost for both our students and staff,” he said. “We all remember how excited we used to get about those snow days.”

Snow days and remote learning

A 2021 Kansas law limits remote learning by cutting back the state money districts get for most students who spend more than 40 hours per school year — about five to six school days — learning remotely. 

An enrollment guide from the Kansas State Department of Education lists inclement weather among reasons schools may want to use their limited remote hours, but some local districts aren’t interested in online learning on snow days. 

Wichita Public Schools factored the law into the decision, but it also isn’t easy to pivot to remote learning on short notice, Armendariz said. Wichita students have school-issued electronic devices but don’t always bring them home. Teachers would have to scramble to modify in-person lesson plans for an online setting. 

Andover Public Schools faces similar issues, said spokesperson Terry Rombeck, and likely wouldn’t choose remote learning during snow days regardless of the law. 

Students “may not even have technology at home or internet access,” he said, “so there could be some equity issues there.” 

The experience of remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t leave the district eager for more, Rombeck added. 

“We made it work the best we could,” he said. “But the vast majority of people would probably say it wasn’t as effective as in-person learning for most students.” 

Instead, Andover builds extra days into its calendar to ensure students attend schools enough days even if they have a few unexpected breaks during snowy weather. 

The DerbyGoddard and Maize districts did not respond to interview requests by the time of publication, but inclement-weather plans on their websites don’t mention remote learning. 

How snow days work

When a snow day is in question, Armendariz heads out around 3:30 a.m. to test road conditions. 

He usually drives the streets of northeast Wichita, where he lives. Other perspectives come in from elsewhere in the district since snowfall can be unevenly distributed. 

The district works with the forecast service Perry Weather and the local office of the National Weather Service for weather information. Factors it considers include existing or predicted snow and ice, low temperatures, road conditions and weather-related building problems such as power outages or flooding. 

The deadline to make the decision is 5 a.m. on the school day, Armendariz said, but sometimes news of a school cancellation will go out the evening before. 

If bad weather develops during the school day, the district may opt to cancel after-school activities or, in extreme circumstances, to dismiss school early

In Andover, the district seeks to make the call before 5:30 a.m., though there have been cases where a decision happened later because conditions abruptly worsened, Rombeck said. 

When a snow day is called, districts distribute that information by phone, email, social media, website, radio and TV. Parents can ensure they receive some of those notifications by keeping their contact information updated. 

“If we could do carrier pigeons or something like that, we’d do that,” Rombeck said. “We just put it everywhere and hopefully nobody misses out on that message.” 

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon