Winter’s record snowfall left a trail of decimated school calendars, forcing districts to grapple with holding classes on Saturdays, on religious holidays, or during April vacation to meet state education requirements.
But making up some of those days could have been as simple as experimenting with out-of-school assignments or activities, a move that does not require approval from state education officials.
The concept was presented as an option by the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mitchell D. Chester, to school departments statewide in March in one of his weekly memos. Apparently unnoticed by some, it allows districts to offer instructional projects and activities that students can complete outside the classroom, that may be counted toward the state’s 180-day academic year requirement as long as local school committees determine the work meets the definition of structured learning time.
Quincy Superintendent Richard DeCristofaro said he wished he’d known about it sooner, as he spent the better part of February and March dealing with one frustrating roadblock after another trying to make up 11 snow days.
DeCristofaro said he only realized out-of-school activities were an option after Braintree’s superintendent told him that that school system was going forward with it.
DeCristofaro mobilized a team to design a program dubbed Beyond the Bell, which will give students the option of participating in a number of enrichment activities after school, or on weekends, such as a historic walk of Quincy, or attending a high school play. Attendance is not required and there will be no grading.
Using out-of-school activities as structured learning time has not been a widespread practice among districts, according to a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman. Because the practice does not require state approval, education officials do not track which districts have opted to go forward with it. They have, however, urged districts to send them details of their plans so the department may identify best practices.
Boston schools did not take this approach to make up some of the system’s eight snow days, instead opting to hold school on Evacuation Day and, pending a teachers union vote in May, on Bunker Hill Day. Approval by the union would make June 29 the last day of school.
Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he wasn’t aware Quincy and Braintree were using the activities model to make up snow days, and argued that such an option should have been better communicated to districts by the state.
“There are districts that are now pushing into June 30. Why don’t we all know about that?” Scott said. “We understand and agree that we need to do everything reasonably possible to make up time; it’s just that when districts have looked at a lot of different options like Saturdays, or using personal days, if there are other alternatives, people want to know what those alternatives are.”
School systems in Burlington and Wayland have also alerted state education officials that they would be experimenting with out-of-school activities as a way to make up for lost classroom time.
In Burlington, which had five snow days, Superintendent Eric Conti said the district will experiment with a concept known as “blizzard bag days,” which allows teachers to assign students work online on snow days. The pilot was recently approved by the teachers union and will allow the district to make up two snow days, making the last day of school there June 21, Conti said.
Students will have until June 1 to complete the assignments, which can range from specific projects to educational field trips that students may take with their families.
“We’re interested in furthering conversation in the state about seat-time or time and learning,” Conti said. “We’re firmly of the belief that we can have a more meaningful learning experience with kids with these learning assignments than we can have on June 23 when it’s 90 degrees outside.”
In Wayland, a committee has been formed with the goal of launching a similar type of program next school year, said Superintendent Paul Stein. With middle and high school students already getting school-issued Chromebooks or MacBook Airs, he said it makes sense for the district to adopt a system to allow for instructional learning at home on snow days.
The goal, he said, is not to get rid of snow days, but to have an option when too many snow days become a hindrance.
“It’s not just about making up the days at the end of the year,” Stein said. “Snow days are like a break, so it’s disruptive to the educational program. You always end up with 180 days, so it’s not a question of teaching time, but maintaining the continuity of learning.”Katheleen Conti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.