There’s no more delicious feeling than waking up on a cold wintry morning, getting ready for school and then hearing that it’s a snow day. It’s like finding money in your pocket.

The decision to close school due to weather is often controversial. Schools must balance the safety of students and staff with their responsibility to families and the inconvenience caused when parents suddenly realize there’s no school, but they must still go to work. It’s a no win situation where someone will be upset no matter the decision.

Several Ontario school boards recently discovered this to their chagrin when they decided not to close schools on a particularly cold day. Frustrated students took to social media to express their frustration resulting in several suspensions and lots of discussion. School board officials may be interested to hear that a new initiative using digital technology may make snow days a thing of the past.

Schools in Arkansas and Pennsylvania are piloting programs that replace inclement weather days with “cyber days”. On days when schools are closed due to inclement weather, teachers send or post assignments to students who complete and return them for evaluation later that day.

The advantages are obvious. No more last days of learning due to bad weather and schools can act to protect the safety of students and staff while maintaining an academic program.

There are a couple of obvious caveats:

  • Successful “cyber days” require students to have technology at home which is a significant issue for students from low-income families. The US pilot schools are private Catholic schools, suggesting more affluent parents and a greater probability that students have their own technology. The Pennsylvania schools provide all students with Chromebooks. If “cyber days” are going to become more widespread we’ll either have to wait until the digital divide is eliminated or schools will need to shift away from BYOD policies and start providing personal technology for students.
  • “Cyber days” are more useful for secondary students than elementary. Elementary students need adult supervision on “cyber days”, meaning parents are still inconvenienced. The job of parents might even be more difficult on a “cyber day”. They are now tasked with ensuring school work is done rather than sending the kids outside to build a snow fort.

The greatest danger of “cyber days” however, is the potential devaluation of how students and parents come to see school-based learning. “Cyber days” reduce academic learning to something that can be sent over the internet and completed at home in isolation. Educators need to be aware of this and ensure that parents understand that school-based learning is much more than the assignment downloaded on a “cyber day”.

Such work should never match the real interactive learning that happens every day in a classroom. School-based learning shouldn’t be “cyber days” work completed at school, but rather learning that is rich, engaging and meaningful. The kind of learning that students would happily trudge through a blizzard to get to.