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What Does Virtual Learning Mean For Snow Days?

NOEL KING, HOST:

What does online learning mean for what is arguably one of the best parts of childhood, the snow day? Some parents and administrators are wondering if it still makes sense to miss a day of class because of bad weather. Rebecca Smith with member station KBIA in Columbia, Mo., has been looking into it.

REBECCA SMITH, BYLINE: Keri Showers and her 8-year-old daughter Ava crowd into the frame of a Zoom window. The mantle behind them is covered with reindeer and silver trees. And our conversation begins like many nowadays, unintentionally on mute. They live in Columbia, Mo., where snow days still exist, even with virtual classes due to the pandemic. Ava's face lights up as Keri asks her her favorite snow day activities.

AVA: I like whenever we went sledding.

KERI SHOWERS: I think I enjoy snow days when I wouldn't have to go to work, and we could just stay inside and cuddle and sleep in if we knew in advance and just have a cozy time.

SMITH: Columbia Public Schools sent a message to families before Thanksgiving about possible snow days. It mentioned the joy and serendipity of an unexpected day off. Showers says she's torn. While she likes snow days, she feels like her three kids need as much class time as they can get.

SHOWERS: If we're all online like we are now, I don't understand why we would need to observe a snow day. I feel like they could make concessions for it. Like, the teachers could not go in that day, you know, and they could just do online from their homes.

SMITH: Craig Hounsom is the superintendent of Rolla Public Schools, a rural district about two hours south of Columbia that's also keeping snow days on the calendar. He says it's not an easy decision to make.

CRAIG HOUNSOM: We are a larger community but in a very rural area. And some of our staff that live out and about, the ability to do online education from home is questionable for a lot of them. So some staff would need to travel in to use our facilities and our network.

SMITH: He says snow days are about more than just getting people to school safely. The district recently shared a post on its Facebook page encouraging people - bake the cookies, grab the sleds and make some memories if a snow day occurs. And Hounsom says everyone - parents, students and staff - have been flexible with changes due to COVID. And he thinks they all could use a break.

HOUNSOM: It's a lot. Students are online now, you know, this year already, much more than they ever have been. And if we have a snow day and kids can get outside and enjoy being a kid, I don't think that's a negative. We think we'll make up the day, and instructionally, we'll be better off.

SMITH: But not everyone thinks that snow days makes sense in this year of online learning. Natalie Milman teaches educational technology at George Washington University. She says she gets the joy of snow days. In fact, when she brought up the idea of ending them, her own son asked, quote, "Are you mean?" But she says, as an educator, she worries about the disruption.

NATALIE MILMAN: I know of a school system in New Jersey that - they were very upfront about - they strongly believe in the snow day, and they want kids to continue playing in the snow and enjoying it. You know, I know for many it's a nostalgic kind of thing from their own childhood. Is it something that is absolutely necessary and needed? You know, I think we could argue no.

SMITH: Back in Columbia, the Showers family is doing the best it can with online learning. While Keri Showers says she's not sure how she feels about snow days right now, they do always have their boots, coats and sleds ready just in case.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Smith in Columbia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO YOU WANT TO BUILD A SNOWMAN")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Do you want to build a snowman? Come on, let's go and play. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.