For Denver Public Schools, snow day was no holiday

Snow and ice cake the windows of a yellow school bus

If a snow day is a holiday dropped in the middle of a school week, Denver Public Schools was the aunt who gets you socks and notebooks instead of the video game you wanted.

The significant expansion of online learning during the pandemic and the effort to get internet and devices to more households has raised the possibility that students don’t have to stop learning just because the weather outside is frightful. 

But faced with the first substantial snow of the year and temperatures in the teens, many Front Range school districts, including Aurora, Jeffco, Dougco, and Cherry Creek, opted for a traditional snow day on Monday, even for students who learn from home. 

Denver Public Schools, however, notified parents and teachers late Sunday that Monday would be a 100% remote learning day.

Denver was not alone. Some smaller districts, like Englewood and Sheridan, also held a remote learning day. In the Pikes Peak Region near Colorado Springs, many elementary students got a snow day while older students learned online.

District spokeswoman Winna MacLaren said Denver students had already missed so much school, administrators didn’t want them to lose yet another day. The district just finished phasing in elementary students on Wednesday. At the same time, a third of elementary students and nearly all middle and high school students are already remote.

“While we know today’s decision to shift to remote learning on short notice presents some challenges, we felt it was important to minimize any additional loss of learning,” she said in an email. “Last year, we lost two weeks during our extended spring break and this year we lost an additional week when we moved the start of the school year back a week.”

But the decision seemed to catch many teachers and some parents off guard. On the district’s Facebook page, some teachers said that students’ Chromebooks were at school, as were their own teaching materials, and that they had to stay up late preparing new lesson plans more suited to an online format.

“How are teachers supposed to completely shift and be ready for virtual learning tomorrow morning?” one asked. “There is a lot more that goes into setting up virtual lessons that can’t be done with the flip of a switch. We aren’t robots.”

Some parents shared the dismay that their children didn’t get a break, but others said it just makes sense to keep learning.

“We have yet to be able to return to school,” one parent said. “It would be crazy if after having decreased learning opportunities online he now also had a snow day when his teachers are all remote anyways.”

Some parents said their children had been required to turn in their Chromebooks when they went back to the classroom, while others asked whether schools are prepared for the possibility of quarantine if they can’t pivot to remote learning on short notice. 

In an email to parents, district administrators said that students who couldn’t participate in remote learning Monday would have their absences excused. 

Cesar Rivera, principal at Samuels Elementary School and co-president of the Denver School Leaders Association, said some principals asked on Friday, during a meeting with district leaders that was primarily about COVID, whether they should plan for a snow day or a remote learning day. They were told the district was working on a new policy but that since it had not been shared publicly yet, if weather made it safer for students to stay home, it would be a snow day.

While students at Rivera’s own school went home with Chromebooks on Friday, “it would have been a better call to do a snow day given that I don’t think leaders or teachers or students were prepared for a remote day today,” he said. 

MacLaren said the decision to treat Monday as a learning day was “not expected necessarily” for teachers and principals. However, the district has asked that children take their Chromebooks back and forth to school every day in the event that they need to switch quickly to online learning due to a COVID exposure.

Does the future hold any more snow days? Probably not this year for Denver students.

“Moving forward, it’s critical students don’t lose more instructional time right now,” MacLaren said. “We are set up to switch to remote learning more fluidly, making it possible to maximize instruction time for our students. Once we’re past the COVID crisis, we’ll be able to evaluate our approach to snow days in the future.”

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