Autumn, 7, and John Thibault of Westbrook speak with a reporter Wednesday outside Westbrook’s Canal School . Westbrook is considering having remote learning days in lieu of storm closures. “I think that’s OK,” said John Thibault. “I would love for her to be able to play outside but still have some school.”  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

With the first major snowstorm of the winter arriving in southern Maine on Thursday, school districts are taking a mixed approach to snow days during a school year like no other.

The coronavirus pandemic already has forced almost all school districts to implement hybrid learning and get students learning remotely from home when they’re not at school. With the infrastructure in place for remote learning and teaching, some districts – barring widespread power outages – plan to implement remote learning days on what normally would have been school closures due to inclement weather.

“We haven’t done one yet, so it will be interesting to see how tomorrow goes and if we end up having one,” Regional School Unit 14 Superintendent Chris Howell said Wednesday. His district, which includes Windham and Raymond, is planning to implement remote learning on snow days but with a focus on asynchronous as opposed to real-time learning. “We’ve worked to have it be as stress-free as possible.”

Some districts, including York, Scarborough and Portland, have said that at least for now they plan to stick with traditional snow days and give students and teachers a well-deserved break. South Portland and Westbrook, meanwhile, are among other districts weighing remote learning days in lieu of storm closures.

“I think that’s OK,” said John Thibault, whose daughter, Autumn, is in second grade at Westbrook’s Canal School. “I think maybe half a day could be school and half the day they can play outside. Tomorrow is looking like snow. I would love for her to be able to play outside but still have some school.”

Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia said that while the district is considering remote learning days instead of storm days, both will be options this year and it will depend on the storm. If there are widespread power outages, Lancia said the district won’t be able to have distance learning.

“Our plan for a distance day would be for teachers to post assignments on the virtual classroom sites by 9:30 a.m. and students would have the day to complete them independently,” Lancia said in an email. “Screen time would not exceed our regular online guidelines. There is no expectation of synchronous (live-time virtual) learning on those days. We also want kids to play in the snow, help shovel the driveway, and have some hot chocolate too!”

In South Portland, the school board approved in November an addendum to the school year calendar that allows for a remote learning day option in the case of inclement weather. If travel is not advisable, students scheduled for in-person activities will resort to remote schedules provided by their teachers or schools. Students and teachers already scheduled to learn and teach remotely will continue to do so.

Marnie Hon of Westbrook speaks with a reporter Wednesday about whether snow days should be remote learning days. Hon, who has children in second grade and fourth grade at Canal School in Westbrook, said they have responded well to remote learning and she wouldn’t mind having it on snow days.  Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

School closures in South Portland will be reserved for days when there are significant power or internet outages and days will be added at the end of the school year to make up for those days.

Scarborough, meanwhile, has decided to keep traditional snow days and cancel school in the event of inclement weather. The district doesn’t typically have a lot of snow days, usually about three or four per year, Superintendent Sanford Prince said. He is concerned power outages could make it hard to implement remote learning after a heavy snow.

“I want to make sure our students and teachers are not in a situation where half the teachers and students have power and half do not,” Prince said. “I’m just really worried about that. There’s no way I can guarantee all students will have connectivity, so I would call it like a traditional snow day. Either we will be here or we won’t be here and school will be canceled.”

Widespread power outages are also something York Superintendent Lou Goscinski is thinking about as he weighs how to respond to snowy and cold weather this year. Before the pandemic, Goscinski was making plans to introduce the idea of remote learning on snow days in his district, but for now he has decided to put those plans on hold.

The district already has five snow days built into its calendars and in the middle of a stressful year, Goscinski said students and teachers could use a break.

“If  I need to cancel school tomorrow, it will be a traditional snow day,” he said. “I’m going to play it by ear as the year moves on. I feel our students have worked so hard and made so many sacrifices that tomorrow’s day should be a traditional snow day.”

If the number of storms starts to pile up, Goscinski will consider implementing remote learning. Another scenario that could trigger remote learning during a storm would be a two-day event where students might have one day off but resume remote learning the next day.

“It’s in my bag of tricks,” he said. “I could use it or not use it, but will make that decision as I go through the year.”

Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, will have a traditional snow day Thursday if there is enough snow to warrant a cancellation, Tess Nacelewicz, the district’s communications coordinator, said in an email. She did not say whether the district has decided if it will take the same approach throughout the year.

Superintendents said it remains to be seen whether remote learning during stormy weather will continue in future school years. In South Portland, Kunin said this year’s calendar addendum was adopted as a one-year item and the district will consider it next year depending on what is allowed by the Maine Department of Education and how things work this year.

One complicating factor is the ability of schools to serve meals on remote learning days. Currently, federal waivers give schools greater flexibility around how and when they serve meals, but if those waivers go away, it could impact schools’ abilities to feed students on remote days.

In RSU14, Howell said the district sent students home with non-perishable food items starting in November in the event of a storm and a remote learning day. Howell said it remains to be seen whether remote learning will stick as a replacement for snow days, but it is something that interests parents.

“Pre-pandemic this was probably the No. 1 request I had from parents in regards to snow days,” he said. “(They were asking) is there a way to go ahead and work remotely on these days so kids are not making this up when it comes to summer. Believe it or not, I had multiple emails on this topic.”

Marnie Hon, who has children in second grade and fourth grade at Canal School in Westbrook, said they have responded positively to remote learning, and she doesn’t mind the idea of having it on traditional snow days, especially this year.

“They seem to be taking this all with a grain of salt, so they probably would think it’s hysterical that it’s like a non-snow day,” she said. “I don’t think they would mind. Actually, they would probably love it.”

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