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Could Virtual Classrooms Be a Solution for Snow Days?

By Mark Leberfinger, AccuWeather.com Staff Writer
February 20, 2014; 4:55 AM

In this Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, file photo, workers clear a downed tree blocking a school bus in the aftermath of a winter storm in Downingtown, Pa. Schools canceling classes because of winter weather in at least 10 states have used up the wiggle room in their academic calendars, forcing them to schedule makeup days or otherwise compensate for the lost time. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The winter that just doesn't want to end has sent parents and school officials scrambling to adjust their schedules because of school delays and cancellations.

Recently, Gizmodo posted a map that showed that it doesn't take much snow for a school district to cancel classes in about 50 percent of the country.

The cancellations can force administrators to extend the school year beyond the originally scheduled end date, and parents without childcare may have to make other arrangements to care for their children on snow days.

Marion County, W.Va., students, for example, had 15 days of instruction during 29 days scheduled as of Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014, with the last full week of instruction coming before Christmas break in December, The Associated Press reported.

There are greater expectations for parents when their children go to school.

"One of our responsibilities as advocates for parents when they transition their children to the schools is to make them more aware of the expectations coming their way with school closings, as well as the many days already scheduled by the districts for conferences, in-service that they are not prepared to face," said Wendy Whitesell, director of Penn State University's childcare program.

Whitesell thinks one way to deal with cancellations is to hold "virtual school" on snow days.

"Teachers can send assignments to students for these closings, and they could do them on the snow day and turn in the assignments over the Internet," Whitesell said. "Of course, there are children without computers, but in most areas schools supply them if a family doesn't have one, or that too can be something schools begin to do, for such an occasion."

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"Currently, most parents I speak with comment on how their children turn their assignments in through Google docs or online programs individual schools have in their districts. Lack of computers seems almost passe. So, maybe expanding computer access (as we do in third world countries for children) can help in this growing child protection/legal risk situation we have created, as well as moving schools to problem solve how to reach students on snow days."

Allowing parental leave would be the other prong to this dilemma, Whitesell said.

"With a bit more realization that families have responsibilities that we could, as employers, support, it would make a better place to live," she said.

A new study conducted by Harvard Kennedy School professor Joshua Goodman shows that snow days are less detrimental to a student's performance than other absences, in part because schools can tack days onto the school calendar.

Actually, keeping schools open during a storm is more detrimental to student performance because of absences due to parent discretion or transportation issues, Goodman found. Those absences are typically not made up in the school calendar.

Goodman studied data from 2003-10 for grades 3 to 10 in conducting the study at the request of the Massachusetts Department of Education.

More potential problems for school calendars are on the horizon, AccuWeather.com Senior Meteorologist Bernie Rayno said.

Blizzard conditions are possible Thursday and Friday in the Upper Midwest, with particular concerns for central and northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Rayno said.

There will be a break during the weekend, but next week could bring disruptive snows to the Midwest on Tuesday and Wednesday with a snowstorm possible for the East Coast.

"Behind that will be very cold air that can also cause school delays," Rayno said.

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