Amid a pandemic and piles of snow, more than a dozen Long Island school districts have opted to provide remote online lessons for students during winter storms, rather than shutting down for a day or two.
The switch from traditional "snow days" to "remote days," while controversial, makes perfect sense, supporters said. They noted that schools over the past year have made massive purchases of electronic tablets, camcorders and other apparatus needed for online instruction in response to the COVID-19 crisis.
As a result, some districts have decided to make use of the extra equipment when the weather turns bad.
Huntington's 4,900-student system, for example, has gone remote on three stormy days — the first in December, followed by two days at the beginning of February.
Kristin Kanzer, president of the district's PTA Council, said she has noticed changes in parents' reactions to the scheduling changes over time.
"Particularly for younger kids, the initial reaction from parents might have been disappointment that they didn't have time for sledding," said Kanzer, who has two teenage sons in the district. "By the time of the second or third day, the reaction was different, and parents were more interested in seeing that continuity of learning."
Huntington Superintendent James Polansky would like to see remote schooling continued during bad weather in future years, should state policy allow this.
For 2020-21, New York State is permitting districts to count such learning toward their mandatory 180 days of annual instruction on a trial basis. Massachusetts has adopted a similar policy.
"It's very hard seeing the silver lining," Polansky said of the pandemic's impact on education. "But when all this is over, there will be some things that come out of this that will continue to benefit students and staff, and this may be one of those things."
In Plainedge, the head of the district's teachers union, Perry Fuchs, said his perceptions changed when the district went remote during February's first storm.
"I gotta say, I was apprehensive at first," Fuchs said. "But it went off without a hitch."
A Newsday check of districts' posted schedules for Feb. 1, in the midst of the Island's first major snowstorm, found 14 districts offering remote instruction. Communities served stretched from Elmont and Manhasset in the west to Montauk and Springs in the east. More than a dozen independent schools, mostly Catholic, also posted that they were going remote.
Meanwhile, the great majority of the region's 124 districts stuck with traditional snow closings, with some vigorously defending their position. Wyandanch Superintendent Gina Talbert issued a letter describing snow days as times for students to "just be kids by playing in the snow, baking cookies, reading books, watching a good movie and simply enjoying family time."
"Snow days are a rite of passage for kids," said Jeanette Deutermann, founder of an Islandwide parent network and mother of two students in the Bellmore-Merrick system. "In an age when we're giving up all sorts of childhood memories in favor of technology, it's worthwhile holding on to a few of those memories."
Others take a different view.
"We've had so much bad weather," said Debra Winter, schools chief in the Springs district that decided to try remote instruction. "There's sleet, there's slush. Is it really a good day to go sledding?"
Nationwide, the issue of snow days verses remote days is also under debate.
The EdWeek Research Center, headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, surveyed a nationwide sample of educators last year and found that 39% of district leaders and principals had districts converting snow days to remote learning days. Another 32% said their districts were considering such changes.
The center is affiliated with Education Week, a national publication.
One expert on the subject, Richard Ferdig, a professor of educational technology at Kent State University in Ohio, noted that schools in this country have provided online learning to varying degrees since 1995. Given that fact, he said, there's no reason remote learning cannot be delivered effectively when schools shut down for storms, provided there is adequate technology and training for teachers.
"If people draw on what we know works best in online instruction, based on 25 years' experience, then I think snow days lose out," Ferdig said. "And I would actually hope snow days do lose out."
Locally, proponents of this approach cited several advantages. Going online during storms helps districts provide instructional days mandated by state law and avoids the need to cancel vacation days later to make up for lost time, they said.
"The biggest advantage is that we won't have to give up our vacation days," said Brenda Lentsch, public relations director for Commack schools. "And we would only use remote learning when we need to meet the minimum state requirement for 180 days of instruction."
Also, some school leaders said, the remote approach reduces the potential for hazards faced by school buses in transit on icy roads.
"If you don't want people at risk, and you can offer remote without risk, then why not?" said Jack Perna, superintendent in the Montauk district.