No more snow days? Not yet in these Centre County school districts

A new law in Pennsylvania will allow schools to teach students at home during wintry weather, but some Centre County school districts are not quite ready to get rid of snow days.

“At this time, there are too many unknowns that we would need to work through, and I don’t know at this point that some of those hurdles are able to be met,” said Sherri Connell, Penns Valley Area School District assistant superintendent.

The legislation, which Gov. Tom Wolf signed earlier this month, would allow students to learn from home on days where school would have been canceled due to inclement weather. However, Penns Valley is unsure how a school day would operate for “a variety of reasons,” Connell said.

“At this point, there are still too many questions and things that we need to overcome to make sure that all of our kids get a quality education,” Connell said.

Penns Valley’s mission statement is “empowering our students every day to reach individual success,” and Connell said the most important phrases in the mission statement — every day and individual success — are not guaranteed under the new law. While every student has access to technology, not everyone has high-speed internet at their home.

“It’s going to be very difficult to give our students a full day of rigorous instruction,” Connell said.

In addition to broadband access, Connell said the district does not know how attendance could be tracked, especially with internet access as a hurdle. Without being able to use a Google platform, she said the school does not know how to record who logs on and completes work for the day.

In addition to broadband access, Connell said the district has to be mindful of students with disabilities and exceptions before participating in “cyber snow days.”

“They, just like all students, deserve a high-quality, appropriate education every day,” she said. “...If a student needs something read aloud or if they need access to special devices, those are things that we would need to overcome to make sure that every student is getting those.”

While district administration has not met formally to discuss the new legislation further, Connell said they plan to meet and formulate a list of questions to ask the Pennsylvania Department of Education before deciding how to best move forward with the optional cyber school day.

“We’re not saying no,” Connell said. “We’re just saying not yet.”

Bellefonte Area School District is also holding off on committing to cyber school days, with Superintendent Michelle Saylor saying that equity barriers must be addressed.

“The option is not as easy as it sounds,” Saylor said.

All students must have access to internet and technology, parental support when working from home and access to instructors. Saylor said the needs of special education students or others who require specific accommodations in the classroom must be addressed before implementing cyber snow days.

“These challenges cannot be addressed with a simple packet or one-size-fits-all online application,” Saylor said. “Is it something we continue to explore? Absolutely. But it is much more complicated than just having the legislation to support it. The legislation is a critical step, but it is far from the solution.”

Bald Eagle Area School District Superintendent Jeff Miles said the district will not partake in cyber snow days until students are guaranteed access to internet “100% every time.”

Like most rural schools, BEA is concerned about its students having reliable access to internet, Miles said. Even if a student has internet access in their home, it is not always a guarantee.

“It’s not to say that in the future it doesn’t happen,” Miles said. “It would have to be functional and educational.”

Using technology to “avoid missed opportunities” from snow days is not a new idea at State College Area School District, but SCASD Director of Communications Chris Rosenblum said the idea still presents challenges.

While intriguing on the surface, it’s still in its infancy, so we’ll have to consult with our school community and weigh the pros and cons of virtual snow days before making a decision on this matter,” Rosenblum said.

For the 2019-20 school year, all four districts have scheduled snow make-up days on their calendars if needed.

Philipsburg-Osceola Area school district officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Marley Parish reports on local government for the Centre Daily Times. She grew up in Slippery Rock and graduated from Allegheny College.