For some St. Louis schools, snow days are another casualty of the pandemic

Every winter, Gavin and Wyatt Hunsel look forward to the occasional snow day. They grab their sleds and head for the hills in their backyard or nearby Blanchette Park in St. Charles, then settle in on the couch with hot chocolate and a movie.

This year, they’ll attend their middle and high school classes from their computers regardless of the weather. The St. Charles School District decided to switch to virtual learning for up to five snow days this year. The snow days will be called in advance when possible, allowing students and staff to take home their laptops. Traditional snow days with no virtual learning will still be called if road conditions are unexpectedly treacherous after a surprise storm.

“We understand this is a change, but the use of virtual learning snow days is the alternative to making up snow days at the end of the year, and this will be our practice as we move forward in the future,” Superintendent Jason Sefrit wrote in a recent letter to families.

Snow days are just the latest casualty of the pandemic for schoolchildren, who have missed out on prom, graduation, assemblies, field trips and other traditions since March. Because students and teachers are already set up for distance learning, many school administrators are less willing to forfeit more educational time than necessary.

But with all the stress and disruption pandemic has brought to schooling, “having a random day off here and there would be really nice for them and their mental wellbeing,” said Aubrey Hunsel, the boys’ mother. “It just feels like school is nonstop in this format. Let’s let kids be kids and have a day off.”

School districts across the Midwest and the East Coast, including New York City, have preemptively canceled snow days this year. To be fair, snow days were already on the way out as wireless connectivity grows. Over the last decade, several states including Illinois, Minnesota and Ohio have made it easier for school districts to pivot to virtual learning during bad weather.

Missouri legislators enacted a law in 2019 allowing districts to submit plans for “alternative methods of instruction” for up to 36 hours of class time each year. The rule has of course been sidelined during the pandemic, as virtual learning became a full-time alternative.

Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of education and economics at Boston University, said there’s “no justifiable reason” to declare a snow day if students are learning remotely, citing the time students have already lost due to pandemic disruptions.

“Our goal should be to squeeze every available minute out of this school year for student learning,” Goodman said. “Parents and students are already receiving substantially fewer educational services than they used to. Cutting back further for bad weather would be laughable if it weren’t so awful an idea.”

Some parents and teachers agree that if they’re going to be home anyway, they might as well get some class time in. In a survey conducted by the Northwest School District, just 28% of parents and 17% of staff preferred all traditional snow days with no instruction. The Jefferson County district will likely use a combination of traditional and virtual snow days.

Other districts including Parkway are also planning a combination approach — no classes for the first three snow days and virtual learning on any subsequent days. The plan allows the districts to avoid making up days at the end of the year because three snow days are built into the calendar, school leaders said.

The Hancock Place School Board in south St. Louis County decided before the pandemic to incorporate virtual learning during inclement weather. On snow days, students will receive live online classes in the morning to “allow some time for kids to go out and make some snowballs” in the afternoons, said Superintendent Kevin Carl.

“In a year where we’ve had so much change and uncertainty, we’re trying to do everything possible to stay the course,” Carl said. “It’s almost an annual rite of passage to celebrate that first snow day, but I think by the sixth or the 10th one we have had enough.”

Other school districts said they will continue to call off an unlimited number of snow days this winter, come blizzard or ice storm.

“In a year in which so many things have been changed or canceled due to the pandemic, we look forward to keeping the snow day tradition alive,” Francis Howell Superintendent Nathan Hoven wrote Monday in a letter to parents.

Whenever there is potential for a snow day, Mehlville Superintendent Chris Gaines drives around the district at 3 a.m. to check road conditions. This year, the superintendent sees snow days as a chance to maximize classroom time on the back end.

“Having experienced so many virtual days since March, we thought that if it were possible to try to add an in-person day, maybe in late May or early June, that that’s what we would try to do,” Gaines said. “I think there’s a fair bit of recognition that we get a little more value out of in-person days … being able to have kids together in person, that’s going to be our preference.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.