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GRAVES: Canceling the cancellations?

As the first few raindrops struck my windshield last week and threatened to transmute from liquid into solid in the temperatures that hovered right around that magical 32-degree mark, I was reminded that the school year had entered that unhappiest of seasons for superintendents, weather calls.

If you have read this column in the past, you know that I can bloviate endlessly about the misery that is weather-related school cancellations. (In fact, if you've heard enough about this in the past, feel free to skip the subsequent paragraph.)

Spending more than half the school year trying to do your job and the scores of tasks and demands which that entails while constantly keeping one eye on the weather sometimes feels like juggling plates with a sleeping baby in your arms. You can do one well or you can do the other well but you often can't do them both well at the same time. Oh, yeah, they also keep you up at night or wake you up too early in the morning, force you on icy and snow-obliterated roads, put you and your vehicle to the test in temperatures so cold they would warrant mention on the weathercasts on Pluto, and devour the time and attention being demanded by a myriad of other needs. But at least you can take solace in the fact that whatever call you make, a good chunk of people out there will know you made the wrong call, that not only aren't you the sharpest knife in the drawer, you are a butter knife in a world filled with Ginsus.

Even with all this whining, though, superintendents of districts in areas where winters take hold have had to accept school cancellations as simply a fact of life. Oh, we might bring peace to the Middle East, end world hunger, and populate Mars, but winter is just one of those immovable objects that would always be with us, like death and taxes. The last superintendent in the last school district on the last day before the end of the world will still have to decide whether or not to have school.

Or maybe not. More and more superintendents around the country are taking the sting out of school cancellations by, well, canceling them. Instead, in schools in which students enjoy a 1:1 technology program — where every student has possession of a school-provided computer or related device — whenever students can't attend school physically because of bad weather, they are provided tasks to accomplish on their snow day which provides at least some of the learning they would have experienced in school that day.

In some cases, this means a "snow day" folder they open and accomplish the tasks therein. Such tasks were created for the day back during the lovely days of summer and though they may not hit perfectly what is happening in the classroom that day, they are an attempt to provide some meaningful instruction. In other cases, teachers, who have taken their computers home as well, are expected to adapt the lessons they would have provided in school to a computer-based format. This might include directions to the Kahn Academy or recorded lectures of themselves, along with activities and assignments. These would probably not be as good as receiving the instruction at school but they would accomplish at least some percentage of such.

The result would be that the school day goes on as scheduled, with no calendar interruption.

I've done a lot of reading on these initiatives and, while I do understand that first attempts at a technology solution are often "rough" with subsequent improvements more and more closely approaching or even exceeding the success of the traditional approach, there are some problems with this tack.

First, it is not as good as having children in a classroom with an excellent teacher and thus canceling school cancellations would seem to settle for something less than would have been possible by making up the day later when the physical classroom would hold. Second, it is a sad reality that not every child does his or her homework every day.

How many students would then simply choose not to engage in their computer-assigned activities? Third, I have no doubt that taking this approach will lead to a very significant increase in the number of snow days. With an "easy solution" to the problem of wintry weather, I suspect an awful lot of us would succumb to the temptation of keeping the buses in the yard more often than we now do, more often than the weather really demands.

So, unless I see more evidence of the value of this approach, I won't be entertaining a change in how we deal with a snow day.

Oh, and, yes, there is one more reason for my position on this, lest you think (or already know) that I am a heartless, bean-counting fiend inured to the joys of childhood in pursuit of one more point on standardized tests. That reason is that the very occasional snow day brings more rapture to the face of a kindergartner and a middle schooler and a high school senior and sometimes even a teacher or the occasional principal than anything else I have ever done as a school superintendent.

Playing Santa once or twice a year can take the edge off months and months of grinchiness.