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Science of the snow day: How Rochester Public Schools makes the decision and whether snow days will last

During the 2018-19 school year, there were 10 days off because of weather in Rochester Public Schools.

Snow
Friends Hudson Barclay, 12, left, thows a snowball at Nora Day, 13, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023, at Judd Park in Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — In the vocabulary of youth, few words or phrases carry as much sanctity as "snow day." And in that sense, Thursday was a holy day. A day for sledding and snow ball fights. A day for staying in pajamas and binge-watching TV.

So far, there have been four snow days for Rochester Public Schools in the 2022-23 school year. After five, additional time begins to be scheduled onto the calendar to make up for the lost days.

But in the post-pandemic, ultra-mobile world of 2023, why are snow days even still a thing since students have the ability to learn from home? According to Superintendent Kent Pekel, asking students to learn from home on days traditionally called off for snow is something that's possible, but shouldn't be taken lightly.

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"It takes time to adapt that (content) to computer-based learning, and you never know when a snow days going to come," Pekel said. "It's not something that can be done well on a dime."

He explained it's not just a matter of doing distance learning well in general, but being able to switch from one method to the next in a way that's still useful.

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So for the time being, students will continue hoping for even a few flakes of snow to justify their outcry, even while knowing full well their ancestors routinely walked to school barefoot in the snow, uphill — both ways.

The possibility of snow days means students will continue to remain amateur meteorologists and lobbyists, taking their argument directly to the top of the proverbial food chain.

"I am fully convinced tomorrow should be a snow day because it's a Thursday and we have had a lot of snow days on Thursdays this present year," a student wrote to Pekel. "Creating a pattern that would only benefit sleeping schedules."

The possibility of remote learning aside, the school district released a statement in December, explaining how it decides whether to proclaim a snow day or not in the first place.

"Whenever there is the possibility of significant snow or other bad weather, our district's transportation manager, myself, and other leaders connect with each other at 4:30 a.m.," Pekel wrote in the statement on the district's website.

The same statement went on to say there are three factors that play into the decision: "road conditions, visibility, and projections for incoming weather during the course of the day."

And for Rochester, it's an all-or-nothing sort of decision.

"Unfortunately, the size and complexity of our transportation system in Rochester make 2 hour late starts impractical in our community, whereas smaller districts and districts with different busing systems can utilize that option," the statement said.

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The district's leadership often makes the decision about snow days later than the students themselves would prefer. On Jan. 3, Pekel shared an email from a student wanting to know whether there would be school the next day or not.

"What do you think is the probability of a snow/ice day tomorrow? I just want to know if I'll have time for homework tomorrow,"the student wrote.

Students have been more fortunate in some years than others. During the 2018-19 school year, there were 10 days off because of weather.

But will it last? After all, there are neighboring school districts that use remote learning during inclement weather rather than canceling classes altogether. On Thursday, Pine Island, Plainvew-Elgin-Millville, Chatfield, Grand Meadow and others announced they were closed and that it would be an E-learning day.

Making that happen takes a lot of moving parts. Teachers and staff must make sure every student actually takes their school-issued devices home with them so they're able to do remote learning in the first place. It's also something the school district has to negotiate with the Rochester Education Association, which is the teachers union.

"I think we will revisit it in the future," Pekel said. "I never say never. We just don't want to do it badly. I'm positive this will be something we'll discuss again in negotiations."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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