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Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Published: 2/15/2014

COMMENTARY

‘Blizzard bags’ a hot idea to avoid educational calamity

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST
Marilou Johanek Marilou Johanek
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Ohioans have a love-hate relationship with winter. It’s breathtaking and picturesque. It’s shoveling and scraping.

The sight of pristine snowfall sparkling on bare tree branches is captivating. Fighting whiteout blizzards with 8-inch snowdrifts, not so much.

Hardy Midwesterners can handle anything — to a point. We’ve reached that point. Mother Nature is unhinged. Deep freeze or snowstorm. The monotony is maddening.

The only humans who are deliriously happy with bitterly cold days or mounds of impassable snow are the backpack bunch not at the bus stop. They were humming Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” before Christmas.

That’s unsettling. Not for kids, of course. They never dreamed they’d have this many days off. But it’s a problem for schools, teachers, parents, and anyone else in favor of literate youth.

Canceled school days, because of weather or other emergencies, ordinarily are not a serious concern in Ohio. The state allows five calamity days per school year, which is usually sufficient.

But we’ve had global-warming winters in recent years. Ohio winters haven’t posed a sustained challenge until 2014, when global cooling arrived.

Ice covers more than 79 percent of the Great Lakes. Snow totals and plunging temperatures are setting climatological records around the state. Some schools have been closed more than they’ve been open since New Year’s Day.

What may be typical in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or the Minnesota tundra is atypical in Ohio. By the end of January, many schools in the state had used all their calamity days and then some.

What’s a district to do? How will it comply with the required number of school days, or adequately prepare students for upcoming high-stakes tests, or reach all-important student learning objectives?

Public education in Ohio — how to get one in spite of winter — suddenly has everybody from the Statehouse to local school districts talking. Schools are counting on lawmakers to cut them some slack, grant a one-time extension of calamity days, or push standardized testing back a week.

But schools that have maxed out their calamity days are making contingency plans. Who knows how many more school days will be lost to snowy and frigid weather?

Some districts may tack on days at the end of the school year, during spring break, or on weekends. Others hope to make up calamity days used beyond the allowable amount with “blizzard bags.”

These are extra online assignments or take-home lesson packets students must complete to account for as many as three missed school days. Districts that select this alternative make-up plan have to get it passed by their school boards and approved by the state.

In a winter such as this one, the blizzard bag program, introduced by the Ohio Department of Education in 2011, could catch on fast. At least it helps students stay on task at home, and keeps districts from adding make-up days to the school calendar.

The superintendent in my school district recently alerted parents about executing the plan and the additional homework students will be required to do. Like other parents of school-age children around the state, my husband and I have become exceedingly familiar with recorded messages from the superintendent.

We’ve heard from him almost every other day, notifying us that classes are canceled, or on two-hour delay, or on second thought and second call, off for the day.

Kids pray for those calls. But these robo-recordings do not evoke the same universal exhilaration in parents.

Edison Local School Superintendent Thomas Roth acknowledged as much in a recent taped communication about blizzard bags.

“Good evening,” he began. “I bet you are tired of hearing my voice by now. The good news is this call is not to delay or cancel school.” The bad news is, we have more winter left.

So much for continuity in the classroom. Back in the day, I tell my darlings, we used to trudge 10 miles to school, uphill, in blinding snow, in temperatures of 40 degrees below zero.

OK, maybe not 40 below. Or 10 miles. Or blizzards. But we never reached a point of more snow days than school days.

And we never developed a love-hate relationship with beautiful, oppressive winter until we became adults with no calamity days during which we can hibernate or sled. Maybe we should go back to school.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact Blade columnist Marilou Johanek at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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