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Blizzard bags are a...mixed bag

Alissa Widman Neese • Aug 27, 2014 at 2:41 PM

For years, hazardous winter weather coincided with hope for area students — the elusive possibility of a “snow day”

These days, a majority of local schools plan to transform snow days into a new variation of parent-led home-schooling.

The trend: “blizzard bags,” which is gaining traction statewide, given this winter’s unusually ferocious weather.    If Ohio districts cancel more than five statepermitted school days, “alternative makeup plans,” commonly called “blizzard bags,” help them avoid adding makeup class days to the school year’s end.

Schools can send home the physical classwork ahead of time in bags, or provide assignments online, and students earn credit for up to three school days.

The feedback so far, according to educators: It’s a mixed bag, no pun intended.

Earlier this month, siblings Larisa Kerik, 12, and Kenny Kerik, 10, spent their district’s sixth snow day gathered around their home computer, typing reviews and completing online quizzes.

The Danbury Schools students didn’t appear to mind.

After all, the extra classwork wasn’t too difficult, and it preserved their precious summer vacation days, mother Maureen Kerik explained.

“I like it because I can work at my own pace, too,” Kenny said.

Some parents, however, have criticized the new concept’s amount of work and the time allotted to complete it.

State law requires schools allot students up to two weeks to complete their assignments, but the amount of work typically depends on a teacher’s discretion.

“The instructions are sometimes unclear, and it’s hard for my youngest son to find the time to finish everything because he’s active in sports,” said Misty Stanley, whose children are in fourth and second grade at Clyde-Green Springs Schools. “They wouldn’t mind going in the summer compared to this”

Mixed bag reactions

Four area districts started the school year with a blizzard bag plan in place: Bellevue, Benton-Carroll-Salem, Danbury and Edison schools.

Since then, five more have signed up to participate: EHOVE Career Center and Clyde-Green Springs, Huron, Monroeville and Norwalk schools.

The slew of weather-related cancellations this year likely prompted the newly implemented policies.

As of this week, six of the area’s 16 school districts have canceled school 10 or more times this year, with several more on the brink with nine cancellations.

Some educators, such as Bellevue Schools superintendent Kim Schubert, said this year’s online assignments are going well.

“Our teachers have done a great job of posting online lessons that are meaningful and productive for our students,” Schubert said. “The students are already working hard on their makeup work and have begun turning in their assignments”

Others, such as Benton-Carroll-Salem Schools superintendent Guy Parmigian, admitted his district experienced significant issues executing “virtual learning days,” and said he’s re-evaluating their effectiveness thanks to honest feedback.

“To be blatant, there were some legitimate problems, and some assignments were unclear,” Parmigian said. “We’re all learning a lot, and the biggest thing is there’s really no substitute for a teacher”

In addition to implementation problems, many district officials also expressed confusion about what days they could use their newly approved policies.

Once the Ohio Department of Education approves a district’s proposal, it is effective retroactively, meaning schools can use their plans up for time missed earlier this year, spokesman John Charlton said this week.

Future legislation delaying implementation

Educators are still hopeful state legislators will approve a bill granting them four additional free weatherrelated cancellations, called calamity days, this school year.

Disagreement in the Ohio House delayed an anticipated vote Wednesday, which could have expanded the five state-permitted days to nine, given this year’s unprecedented number of weather-related cancellations.

Many schools with new blizzard bag policies are holding off on assigning additional classwork until the vote has passed, to avoid making students complete unnecessary assignments.

“We have to wait for the legislature to determine which direction we need to go,” Norwalk Schools superintendent Dennis Doughty said. “We don’t want to use the additional blizzard bag days going forward unless we have to call off school again due to inclement weather”

Next year, blizzard bags may disappear

Another consideration: Soon after its statewide implementation, the concept of “blizzard bags” could become extinct.

Next year, state law will require schools to log a certain number of classroom hours in a year, rather than days. The move will allow schools to add time to existing school days to make up missed days, to avoid extending the school year.

Most Ohio districts will already exceed the minimum number of hours required. This, coupled with the new makeup options, could make the apparently difficult-to-implement blizzard bags obsolete.

Some district officials have cited this uncertainty as a reason for not utilizing an alternative makeup plan.

Others, such as Sandusky Schools officials, have stated they don’t believe they’re an adequate replacement for face-to-face instruction.

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