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Will Unified Communications & Collaboration Mean the End of Snow Days?

Posted by Kevin Gulley

Feb 11, 2015

Earlier this week, I woke up to words I never thought I would hear my child utter - “This is ridiculous, I’m sick of snow days.”  That’s how bad it’s gotten living in Massachusetts for the last three weeks.  Our town has gone through a stretch in which we were buried by three major winter storms that all started on Monday mornings and resulted in six snow days out of a total of twelve school days (not to mention a lot of sore backs, parents that have reached the “togetherness” breaking point, insanely high and hazardous mounds of snow that make driving treacherous, and kids that have retreated to their iPads and PS3s since they’ve had their fill of playing in the snow). snowy_road_snow_day2

And it’s not only the families that are tired of the extreme weather, school systems blew through their allocation of snow days in less than two weeks.  This means real hassles and real money as districts look for ways to make up the extra days without forcing kids to go to school until the 4th of July.  According to a former school board member in my town, recovering from too many snow days is a challenge and usually includes significant costs like teacher and janitor overtime, extended busing contracts, paying utilities and crossing guards and cutting vacation weeks short to fit in extra days of instruction.  Since Massachusetts' law requires a 185 day school year, and our town’s FY 2014 school budget was $187.7 million, it seems safe to say that every additional day of school costs around one million dollars….not chump change.  That number was echoed by Montgomery County Washington, that had to make up two school days in 2014 due to snow days at a cost of a cool $2 million.

School Districts Looking to Mitigate the Cost of Snow Days

With numbers like these it’s not surprising that school districts are looking for ways to minimize the impact snow days have on student education and their budgets.  Here’s a look at ways they can leverage technology to keep the school year on track (and that might mean ‘snow days’ as we know them will soon be a thing of the past).

Blizzard Bags

In Massachusetts we are used to snow (with 6 of the snowiest winters on record having occurred in the last 20 years), but nothing compared to our northern neighbor New Hampshire.  My sister lives in New London, NH and things got so bad a few years back that her school district invented a concept called “Blizzard Bags”, which have been adopted all over the state since.  According to New Hampshire Public Radio:

It’s called a blizzard bag day, though often there isn’t a physical bag of assignments. Instead, most students access them online.

Here’s how it works: If 80 percent of students complete their assignments, then it counts as a day of school. That means one less day tacked onto the end of the school year.

The Kearsarge Regional School District came up with the idea in 2009. Superintendent Jerry Frew said after nine snow days his first year on the job, he knew something needed to change.

“We were going weeks on end without having a full school week and it’s just so disruptive to the learning process so we felt there had to be a better way to keep kids engaged.”

The first year for Kearsarge was a test run of sorts, and there have been adjustments along the way.

"The very first year, teachers just required and expected too much work. It was overwhelming. And so we tweaked that.”

The state Department of Education has since opened up the program to all districts.

I assure you, at this point my kids and their friends would be all over this solution if it meant that they didn’t have to keep tacking warm summer days onto the end of the school year.

On-line Meetings, Collaboration and Remote Learning

It’s one thing to have a list of assignments waiting for you, but what about actual instruction and being able to interact with teachers.  This is where online meeting and collaboration solutions like those we are used to in the business world start to make sense.

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Join.me is an online meeting utility from LogMeIn that costs under $15/month per user and would allow teachers to host on-line audio meetings with up to 250 students at a time, present a lesson plan, share their screen, distribute documents and perform student Q&A via chat.  WebEx, GoToMeeting, ReadyTalk and others all can deliver this capability for a reasonable price.

Some school districts have already implemented unified communications solutions and are offering real distance learning solutions including video, telepresence and whiteboard sharing.  This Cisco case study reviews how a Texas school district has leveraged telepresence and distance learning to bring students in rural locations and around the world into the academic experience.  Not exactly addressing snow days in Texas, I know, but that infrastructure, once part of the teacher’s toolset, can be leveraged whenever necessary.

Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), are an area that is gaining traction in the education space.  With open source solutions available for free, like OpenEdX (developed with input from Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Google, Berkley and universities all over the world), these feature-rich platforms can provide all the capabilities a school system would need to keep the school days on track even in the snowiest of winters.  It may be a little bit overkill for K-12, and teachers may not have a great place in their homes to shoot video while hosting a class, but it would definitely count as real education and mitigate the downside of snow days.

So what do you think?  Are we nearing the end of snow days as we all knew them as kids?  Are our grandkids going to cry when they realize that we used to get snow days off and they don’t anymore?  Has your school district been looking into solutions like these?  Let us know in the comment field below.

Topics: collaboration, networking, Business Case, telecommuting, Open Source