No more snow days? Connecticut education officials consider online learning in event of inclement weather

Snow days could be a thing of the past in Connecticut schools this winter as the state Department of Education is developing guidelines on how students may learn online from home instead of missing class due to inclement weather.

Jessica Mirtle, legal director for the state education department, told members of the State Board of Education Wednesday that the unique circumstances of education during the coronavirus pandemic — with many school districts including an online component as part of students’ learning — have led to many questions about whether students could simply learn from home in the event of snow rather than having to make up a day at the end of the school year.

“It’s only because of these circumstances that we would consider this something that needs to be … allowed for,” Mirtle said.

State education Commissioner Miguel Cardona said with winter approaching “this is a timely conversation” for the board to be having.

“What I want to do is stay ahead of this and not have it be something that becomes problematic later,” he said.

Cardona noted that state education officials had already approved of counting online learning days toward Connecticut’s requirement that public schools hold a minimum of 177 days of classes this year.

“We’re approving remote days for students every day in some cases, and in other cases it’s a big part of the model,” he said. “So if we’re able to provide opportunities for students to learn online that meet that threshold of quality, then we should be able to allow it under this pandemic emergency. That would be my recommendation.”

Board members approved a resolution that directed Cardona’s staff to develop guidelines for remote learning on inclement weather days.

In the resolution and in a brief discussion at Wednesday’s meeting officials discussed some potential issues that needed to be addressed.

For districts operating with a hybrid model of online and in-person learning, it could be challenging to make a last-minute decision to have students and teachers who were expecting in-person classes on a certain day quickly pivot to online learning.

And while all districts were required to offer a remote learning option for students whose parents didn’t feel safe sending them back to the classroom, some districts have a large number of students attending in-person classes five days a week who are not accustomed to online classes.

“The potential disadvantage for students who are at in-person school and do not have classes, when their peers continue with a remote day is a concern to the” state education department, the resolution read.

While the state has taken steps to work toward getting all students who need them laptops and high-speed internet connections, there are still families who might have connectivity issues related to learning online, Mirtle said.

Districts across Connecticut have already gotten used to having to rapidly change learning plans even before the first snow has fallen. Dozens of schools have been temporarily closed after students or staff tested positive for COVID-19, transitioning to online learning for as long as two weeks in some cases.

Cardona said that as of Wednesday morning, schools in Connecticut had reported 544 total coronavirus cases, 406 among students and 138 among staff since classes began on Aug. 27.

He cautioned that those numbers include students who have been learning remotely all year and “never set foot in a school.” Cardona also said that health officials believe most students and staff were contracting the coronavirus outside of school.

“As a matter of fact what we’re hearing from [the state Department of Public Health] is there’s no record of it being spread throughout the school, but these cases are being reported by the school,” he said.

Russell Blair can be reached at [email protected]

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