Are school snow days a thing of the past?

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch

At 4 a.m., Northern York County School District Superintendent Steven Kirkpatrick was already awake and watching the snow fall.

His question: Would the snow abate in time to allow the district to open schools — perhaps with a two-hour delay? First, he called a delay. Then he changed his mind as bus drivers started to report in that conditions were deteriorating.

"The roads were getting snow-covered at the worst possible time," Kirkpatrick said.

He called it at 8 a.m.

Not a closure, but a day of learning at home.

Snow is visible outside William Penn Senior High School in York City, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Virtual learning days have become an increasingly appealing option for school districts, allowing students to continue their education even during bad weather. Since the start of January, most York County school districts have called for at least two virtual learning days in place of traditional snow days.

"You can keep the continuity, even if (students) are not in school," said Mark DiRocco, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators. 

School districts can apply to the state to gain up to five "flexible instruction days" in a school year, which they can use to replace a normal class day with a virtual learning day because of heavy snowfall or other circumstances.

The option was available to districts before the COVID-19 pandemic, but several districts didn't know it existed, and many didn't have virtual learning options to fall back on.

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York City School District Superintendent Andrea Berry said that a "crippling snow storm" in one of her first years with the district closed schools for five days. Districts are required to hold at least 180 class days each school year, so when snow days run over, Berry said, the district had to add those days onto the end of the year. 

That creates a problem because it detracts from time that students can prepare for their end-of-year tests, Berry said. Most districts prefer virtual learning days over snow days because they maintain the flow of curriculum. 

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Each district faces a unique set of challenges, even during major weather events like the one that covered the area in 6 inches of snow a few weeks ago.

In Red Lion, Chief Instructional Officer Eric Wilson said the district's geographic area is larger than most and includes a lot of rural areas with unpaved roads. The southern half of the district had poor enough road conditions to warrant a closure, even though conditions were better in the northern half.

"Everything is a case-by-case situation," he said. 

Snow is visible outside William Penn Senior High School in York City, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Now, Red Lion only has two flexible instruction days left, so the district will likely hold some traditional snow days if winter brings more snowfall. Wilson said the district will determine when to hold a snow day over a virtual learning day based on a variety of factors, such as the conditions of the day and the time of year.

COVID-19, which arguably created the opportunity for such flexible learning days, has not been cited as a reason for them this year. That's true even though York County districts have recorded 7,720 cases, with more than 37% of those cases logged in the last three weeks. 

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Officials at local districts say they remain committed to preserving as much in-person instruction as possible, believing it to be the best learning model for students. Berry said she expects her district will have some temporary COVID-19 closures this year if the high transmission rate continues. 

Though the recent closures have officially been because of the snow, some districts are using the opportunity to try to mitigate future COVID-19 spread. York City, Northern York County and Red Lion officials all said their districts used at least one of their snow closures to conduct additional cleaning.

DiRocco said he expects other districts across the state are doing the same thing, although he did not know for sure. 

"It would probably be very wise," DiRocco said. 

Marc Unger of York City walks past the fencing outside Christ Lutheran Church on South George Street in York Monday, Dec. 27, 2021. He was heading out for some lunch as flurries continued to fall in the area. Bill Kalina photo

— Reach Erin Bamer at ebamer@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter @ErinBamer.