Children look out a window on a snowy day. School cancellations could become a thing of the past thanks to distance learning.

Kelly Sikkema / Unsplash photo

Will COVID-19 pivot in schools mean Oklahoma snow days are a thing of the past?

Because a sudden switch to distance learning is possible, districts are looking to change

  • Robby Korth

Craig McVay feels awful about it.

The El Reno Public Schools superintendent said there’s no joy in taking away snow days.

“I’m the king of snow days. I don’t want to give that up,” McVay said. “I know as a child what it meant to me to hear those magic words on the 10 o’clock news or to wake up that morning to my parents telling me, hey… no school today.”

But in a semester fractured by closures due to COVID-19 infections and quarantines, El Reno has had to pivot school sites to distance learning at a dizzying pace. 

That made the decision to have a snow day replaced by distance learning the logical decision, McVay said.

“It’s an opportunity not to miss instructional days when we need them the most,” he said.

El Reno is hardly alone. Dozens of districts around Oklahoma made an appearance on local newscast chyrons announcing they’d be in distance learning because of winter weather.

That’s following a national trend. For years, northern states like Pennsylvania have slowly been replacing snow days with virtual learning options.

But districts need to be careful, said Shawn Hime, the Executive Director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association.

October’s ice storm knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans and made distance learning impossible. So days built into calendars by school leaders probably shouldn’t be erased if districts want to keep up their instructional hour requirements, he said.

Plus, there’s a cultural element worth preserving.

“We all saw the snowman on TV, eight feet, 10 feet tall,” Hime said. “You know, kids want to go out and do that. So I think there’s going to be some blend moving forward after this year of being able to have virtual education.”

Districts around the state have discovered that distance learning is no substitute for face-to-face instruction, Hime said. But in a pinch, it  can be a good way to maintain learning for a short period.

One Oklahoma district replaced snow days with distance learning years ago: Fort Gibson Public Schools.

The small district near Muskogee first replaced snow days with distance learning days in 2015, superintendent Scott Farmer said. 

“The notion was born from a series of bad years that we had with weather where we were missing five to 10 days a year,” Farmer said.

So school administrators looked at what was going on in northern states where snow was more common. They decided virtual days were the natural way to go, though three to five days would be the maximum used, Farmer said.

“It’s a blessing because when I wake up and I drive the roads and I’m thinking, you know, it’s just a little iffy. I don’t feel great about it, but we could probably make it,” Farmer said. “I mean, I don’t have that conversation with myself anymore because it’s like, hey, let’s just go virtual.”

But the pandemic forced Fort Gibson to spend a lot more time in distance learning. Previously, the days had been used for reinforcement of concepts already learned in a classroom. In distance learning for the virus, teachers have had to introduce new concepts.

This week, Fort Gibson got some snow. However, students and teachers were in distance learning because of cases and quarantines due to the virus, so Farmer didn’t have to make a call due to weather.

In El Reno, at this point students are accustomed to distance learning, McVay said.

But, he still hopes they get some enjoyment out of a rare snowy Oklahoma day. In fact he’s encouraging them to treat it like a normal distance learning day with a little fun mixed in.

“They’re not going to miss anything today when it comes to sledding,” McVay said. “They’re all going to be able to to do their thing. They’ll log in, they’ll spend parts of six hours engaged. But then they’ll be on a sled somewhere.”

This COVID-19/education reporting is made possible through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.