The historic snowstorm that brought more than two feet of snow to some D.C. suburbs last week has cost some school districts seven consecutive days of classes — cancellations that have led to worries that students will have trouble making up for the lost time toward the end of a midyear grading period.
The unanticipated vacation has given some students nearly the equivalent of a whole winter’s break worth of days off. Prince William County, which has been out since school was canceled on Jan. 21, has a scheduled teacher workday Monday, meaning students will return to class after 13 days away.
Some students did hours of homework during the snow break; others romped in the snow and worked on passion projects. Many, ecstatic to see school canceled, are now ready to head back.
“It’s always nice to have a break, but it’s right at the end of the quarter,” said Ian Schurr, 16, a junior at Fairfax County’s West Potomac High who is in enrolled in five Advanced Placement classes. He did more than 10 hours of homework during the snow days but missed a lot of instruction. “It’s a little stressful.”
Some students already are back in class. Students in the District went back to class on Wednesday, and schools in the city of Alexandria opened Friday, but the region’s largest districts all remained closed as snow-cleanup efforts continued.
The cancellations came just as teachers were getting ready to close out the semester or quarter in many districts, meaning students could lose out on last-minute opportunities to raise their grades. Loudoun County opted to extend the second quarter to avoid a sudden crush of schoolwork. Montgomery County also was considering pushing back the end date of the third grading period. Other districts were asking teachers to not double up on schoolwork next week and be flexible.
But many teachers encouraged their students to keep up with schoolwork and stayed in touch with them via cellphones and virtual classrooms. For high school students in Advanced Placement courses, staying on track is essential, because students will have to take a year-end exam that could lead to college credit.
Jeffrey Feinstein, who teaches AP U.S. History at West Potomac, attempted to teach a unit on the Progressive Era and keep students engaged by making online quizzes available, although the quizzes were not required.
Technology has been a game-changer for snow days. In years past, teachers were essentially cut off from communicating with students when they were out of class. Now they have a number of ways to reach them, including through email and mass text-messaging. Feinstein and many other teachers use an app called Remind that uses text messages to keep students in the loop about assignments.
“It’s a complete and total change, all for the better,” Feinstein said. “Before technology, it was basically ‘hunker down.’ ”
“Now, with technology, I can be in touch with them all the time,” he said.
Cadets with the Navy JROTC program at Herndon High got a snow-day lesson in community service. Retired Navy Capt. David Adler, a senior naval science instructor there, gathered cadets at a senior center, where they spent two days shoveling out cars and clearing paths in the parking lot.
“It’s actually part of our curriculum that they do some community service,” Adler said, noting that many would have done it anyway because they enjoy helping out.
While districts applaud efforts to keep students engaged during snow days, they also cautioned teachers to strike a balance between maintaining learning and not overwhelming students with schoolwork. Teachers in Fairfax were not allowed to give out required assignments during snow days, and Arlington County teachers were asked to respect family time.
Asante Gadson, 17, a senior at Frederick Douglass High in Upper Marlboro, Md., said he’s been studying at home a lot during his snowbound week to keep on top of his International Baccalaureate classes. Missing so much school is a little worrisome, he said.
“That’s really concerning, especially with IB and how rigorous it is,” Gadson said. “I prefer to be in school so I can ask for help and be face-to-face.”
Special-education teacher Danielle Wilson, who works at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Germantown, Md., said the lost time is significant for her students, who are taking eighth-grade math. Many have disabilities that make it hard for them to process and remember information.
“That’s a lot of time not to have access to daily instruction. It’s easily forgotten,” Wilson said, adding that when school resumes, she will begin with a review of material from the last school day, on Jan. 21. She said she would probably have to condense some topics, giving students less time to practice them.
Susan Burkinshaw, a longtime PTA leader in Montgomery, was among many parents who found the string of school closings frustrating. In Montgomery, the daily decision-making was stressful for many students and parents, she said.
“To leave people hanging on a daily basis — when traffic was gridlocked every day and there was no way to get kids safely to school — was ludicrous,” Burkinshaw said. She said school systems in the region that decided to cancel classes for a stretch of days helped families, giving them more options to plan for child care, activities or getaways.
Some parents, including Catherine Schurr, Ian’s mother, said they are worried about closing out the quarter with so many snow days.
“What are they going to expect due this week?” Schurr said. “All the parents I know are a little bit nervous about that.”
Schurr, a preschool teacher whose own school has been shuttered for a week, said she’s been enjoying the time with her sons, who have been playing in the snow, shoveling for neighbors, watching movies and drinking hot chocolate — in addition to doing schoolwork. She knows it’s probably a different story for the parents of her young students.
“I have been enjoying the time off,” Schurr said. “I know that parents of the preschoolers I teach are all pulling their hair out.”
Judy Bazilio, a mother of three in Bowie, said she was glad the school system made a call on the side of safety. But she said her youngest child, in kindergarten, was ready to go back to school after the first couple of days.
“I hope we can find days to replace those missing days,” she said.