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Snow Daze: The Law and Education

Schools in Reno, Nevada and the surrounding county of Washoe are in a tempest about Snow Days or days of school closures caused by inclement weather. The Washoe County School District (WCSD) is not alone in this issue. The Winter of 2018-19 has caused many schools to address their policies on school closure and the need to compensate for Snow Days with strategies to ‘make up’ the lost in-class time.

The concern is two-fold. One is a legal issue. Many States adopted boilerplate language in their Constitutions regarding the responsibility of establishing public schools. Most States have a requirement that public schools be in session for a minimum of six months each year

The legislature shall provide for a uniform system of common schools, by which a school shall be established and maintained in each school district at least six months in every year…. 

Nevada State Constitution 

While it may seem obvious that this six-month requirement was not meant to be a schedule of a seven day per week schedule for six months, Nevada has followed the example of many other States and reinterpreted the six-month requirement into 180 days of instruction. This has opened the legal issue of whether a school district that has a strict 180 school days schedule is violating the law if classes are canceled for even one day.

Except as otherwise provided in this section, boards of trustees of school districts shall schedule and provide a minimum of 180 days of free school in the districts under their charge.

Nevada Revised Statutes (NRS) 388.090

Snow Daze:  Educational Harm

The second issue with a Snow Day is a claim of educational harm. Traci Davis, the WCSD Superintendent, is claiming that making up a snow day is about meeting the educational need of the student. This Fall she implemented a controversial program to make up Snow Days by requiring that students work from home. Davis’ Master’s degree is in Educational Technology, and that may be the motivation of this year’s sudden establishment of a District-wide ‘Digital Snow Day’ plan to require students to work at home on improvised curriculum posted by their teachers online.

She explained that Digital Snow Days are an effort to find a way for students to keep learning even when school was canceled. Her plan abruptly ended when the Nevada State Board of Education was determined to not in compliance with State law. Davis vehemently denied that Digital Snow Days violated State law, but then admitted that the school district would have to work with the legislature to allow Digital Snow Days to comply with Nevada law.

Sketchy Evidence

In a search for evidence of school closures causing educational harm, only one published paper (Marcotte/Hemelt 2007) could be found. The paper was a discussion paper submitted to IZA of Bonn, Germany in July 2007 by Dave E. Marcotte and Steven W. Hemelt of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The forward of the discussion paper warns,

Discussion Papers often represent preliminary work and are circulated to encourage discussion. Citation of such a paper should account for its provisional character.

The study presented in the discussion paper is of a review of school closures in Maryland from 1994 through 2005, and it compared each year with that year’s test scores. Specifically, it looked at the percentage of 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade students that performed satisfactorily on the Spring standardized reading and math tests.

This study did find that in years of higher unscheduled school closings there was an inverse relationship between the number of unscheduled school closings and the percent of 3rd grade students performing satisfactorily on the math and reading scores; however, 5th and 8th grade test scores did not have as significant of a relationship.

In addition, the data indicates that in years of five (5) or less unscheduled closures, 3rd grade math and reading test scores improve in almost every case. The exceptions were the 1997 reading scores and the 2002 math scores that were virtually unchanged.

Years with 5 or less unscheduled school closures improved 3rd grade test scores in Maryland (Marcotte 2007)

The paper also cites two other studies on the impact of teacher absences on student tests scores that indicate the significance of the teacher in student performance. These studies would contradict the idea that the replacement of the teacher with a digital or virtual lesson would help improve student performance.

Another Possible Reason For Lower Test Scores

The 2007 study also identifies a link between snowfall and unscheduled school closures. According to the study, there was a direct relationship between the amount of snowfall in Maryland and the number of unscheduled closures. It is reasonable to question whether or not that the relationship with lower 3rd grade test satisfactory test scores is related to unscheduled school closures or if the amount of snow in that year caused more absences resulting in lower satisfactory test scores.

Simply put, more snow may mean higher student and teacher absences leading to lower test scores. The Marcotte study did not compare teacher or student absences, which may play an even more important role in student performance than unscheduled school closings.

Snow Days and Educational Harm:  The Imaginary Storm

There may be a link between excessive (more than five) unscheduled school closings and a drop in student performance on end-of-year standardized tests; however, the impact, if any, may be in early elementary grades with a diminishing effect in later grades. There is little reason to believe that a handful of unscheduled closings has a negative impact on student performance, and the 2007 Marcotte/Hemelt discussion paper suggests that a few unscheduled closings may have a positive effect on end-of-year standardized tests.

Regardless, there is no solid, peer-reviewed research that concludes any link between unscheduled school closures and student performance. There have been studies that demonstrate a link between the absence of a teacher and student testing performance, but those studies would contradict the idea that temporary, improvised, online home-based schooling is an effective replacement for in-class instruction. 

The Digital Snow Day, such as the program being pushed by the Washoe County School District, is simply a gimmick that has no proven benefit to student performance.