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Gateway’s ‘blizzard bags’ cut makeup days in sunny June

  • Sledders flock to Hospital Hill after a snowstorm Feb. 9, 2017 in Northampton.

  • An example of a third-grade “blizzard bag” assignment, which Gateway Regional School District has used to cut down on the number of snow days tacked onto the end of the school year. —SUBMITTED PHOTO



@dustyc123
Thursday, June 08, 2017

HUNTINGTON — Many local students will find themselves staring longingly out the windows of their classrooms during the makeup snow days tacked onto their school year.

Students in Gateway Regional School District, however, will be on the other side of those windows, basking in the sun.

The reason for the earliest end to school for Gateway students in recent memory? “Blizzard bags.”

Blizzard bags were first implemented in the state in Burlington Public Schools, and are really just assignments ready for students to take home when they’re likely to get snowed in. Orange, Petersham and Mahar Regional school committees have also approved blizzard bags, as have many other schools in states like neighboring New Hampshire.

The result of those efforts is that Gateway students will only have to make up three of the eight snow days the district had this year.

For Gateway Regional Superintendent David Hopson, the crux of the issue is how difficult it can be to keep kids focused and working on a summery day after testing has already finished, when students may feel trapped at school.

“If you can get this done during the school year, it’s really a decent educational choice for kids,” he said.

Hopson said the district contacted the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education about its plans to use blizzard bags, and department officials said those decisions fall under the purview of local school committees. Gateway officials sent follow-up information about the program to the education department last week, Hopson said.

The education department has laid out guidelines for what it prefers to call “alternative structured learning day programs,” which the department is open to as long as districts “can ensure that the program meets the standard for structured learning time and that the assignments and/or projects are substantial.

“These programs must also be accessible, include appropriate oversight and teacher involvement rather than resembling traditional homework assignments, and be approved by the district school committee or charter school boards of trustees,” the policy states.

Gateway Regional School Committee has laid out several rules for the bag’s use:

Bags won’t be given on two consecutive days, or more than twice in a week;

Students have five school days and a weekend to complete the assignments, which count for a day of attendance and a grade; and

Students with special needs are given accommodations built into those assignments when possible, and if not, they are provided additional time and resources to complete those assignments when they return to school.

“We’ve worked very diligently to make sure all the requirements of the IEPs and 504s are met,” Hopson said.

Hopson is under no illusion that the blizzard bags are any kind of substitute for a full day in a classroom with a teacher. However, his district averages as many as seven snow-related cancellations a year, and the choice between completing those days with a blizzard bag and completing them during the summer is an easy one for Hopson.

That choice is being considered in other locations, too. Hopson said he’s spoken with counterparts from Westfield, Southwick-Tolland-Granville and Ludlow about his district’s practice, and he plans to take that same presentation to the Berkshires next week for a monthly roundtable with fellow superintendents.

“I can see it working well for school committees like ours that are fairly rural, fairly spread out,” Hopson said.

Hasn’t come up

Other less rural districts, however, might be less likely to adopt the practice.

Interim Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris said the question of blizzard bags hardly came up with administrators in his district and was never discussed with the school committee.

“I really value the relationships that form between teachers and students, and I’m always looking to maximize time that those groups can interact,” was the only opinion Morris offered on the subject. The district had five snow days this winter.

Northampton Superintendent John Provost said the issue has not been discussed with school leadership or the school committee in his district, either, and for that reason he’s unable to comment on any positive or negative aspects of the practice.

“We’re not anti-blizzard bag, it’s just not something we’ve worked on yet,” Provost said.

In Gateway Regional’s schools, however, the bags look like they’re here to stay.

Hopson said after the district used blizzard bags five times this academic year, they have gained popularity. Teachers and administrators, Hopson added, have also learned best practices that they will continue to tweak to better serve students.

This year, the district found the rate of completion for blizzard-bag assignments was more than 91 percent. In a recent survey of the district, 60 percent of students wanted to maintain or expand the program, compared with 63.5 percent of parents and 86.2 percent of teachers.

The Gateway Regional School Committee has approved the use of five blizzard-bag days for the upcoming school year.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.