Teachers do the snow-day shuffle, trying to make up for lost instruction time

Winter storms put instructors behind schedule, forcing catch-up plans

Dickinson Elementary fifth-grader Lanajiah Singleton gets ready to work

School closing announcements due to inclement weather are typically greeted with cheers of “Let it snow!” But, after 10 or more snow days, Kent County teachers are looking at the flurries with a bit of dread.

In instruction, continuity matters, they say, but lately, it just hasn’t been possible due to icy interruptions. After missing most of two weeks due to snow days, and some districts getting snowed-in again on Wednesday, teachers have had to scramble to make up for lost classroom time — and figure out how to cover everything they need to before school’s out.

“This experience has really made me process what we do every day as teachers, and how much we are getting done with these kids, and how hard it is to recover,” said Michelle Williams, a sociology and American studies teacher at Rockford High School.

After missing nine of the previous 11 school days, Rockford reopened Monday and Tuesday this week, only to close again on Wednesday for another snow day — and another day of frustration for teachers like Williams.

“It was great fun to have those kids two days in a row, and get into a little bit of a routine,” said Williams, a 25-year teacher in Rockford. “On Monday and Tuesday, these kids were thirsty to learn. Most of them were like, ‘Thank God I’m here, and what she’s talking about is more interesting than the 58th episode of ‘Breaking Bad.’ ’ “

The days off interrupted her unit on civil rights, and she said she’ll have to cut, condense and revise in order to cover material for second trimester, which was extended by a week. She tried to go to school one day to help plan, only to find the power was out. She also needs to factor in missing next Monday, Rockford’s Mid-Winter Break.

“This is all just surreal, quite honestly. It’s been rough,” for her and other teachers, Williams said. “We want to be with our kids.”

Getting Back in the Groove

At Dickinson Elementary in Grand Rapids Public Schools, fourth- and fifth-grade teacher Lauren Shane said missed days have been disruptive to her instruction and lesson plans. Students are learning from a new reading curriculum, which the district is piloting, and a brand-new math curriculum. They are now playing catch-up.

When school reopens, it takes time to “get back into the groove,” Shane said last week, after the polar vortex closed school for the previous full week. “My kids were really reluctant Monday and Tuesday instead of re-energized,” she said.

Then came yet three more days off, this time because of ice. “Today was supposed to be a big pig-lung dissection day,” Shane said last Thursday, Feb. 7, yet another snow day. “I really hope we can reschedule it because it would have been an awesome opportunity for my kiddos.”

Practical Problems

In Lowell, Sharon MacDermaid said she hasn’t seen anything like the recent school closings in her 20 years teaching in the district.

The middle school math teacher said on a practical level, school closings pose an obvious challenge.

“I have several lessons that require the use of Chromebooks,” MacDermaid said. “Every time we have had a day off, I have to go check to see if the technology is available on the new day that I will need it. I have had to reschedule the Chromebook carts 13 times now.”

And while she does not generally assign homework on days her students take quizzes and tests, ”I am going to have to do that in order to make up for lost time,” she said. “We are lucky at the middle school to have yearlong core classes so we have much more flexibility than they have at the high school,” where students change classes every 12 weeks.

‘This is all just surreal, quite honestly. We want to be with our kids.’ — Michelle Williams, Rockford High School teacher

Aside from being worried about having enough days to cover the required curriculum, “there is a huge continuity issue,” MacDermaid said. “As a teacher, it’s difficult to keep straight what we have gotten through and what we have not. The lack of routine is impacting the kids and the teachers.”

She even turned the stark white-out on her lesson plan into a teachable moment on Monday for her sixth-graders, who are in the midst of studying ratios and rates. Using the lesson plan as a visual, she asked her students to calculate the ratio of days school has been open to total weekdays for the first-through-fifth week back since the holiday break.

Jeff Larsen

Jeff Larsen, a Lowell High School English and film teacher, pointed out something stark: “We’ve only had one full week this calendar year, and that was the first one after winter break.”

Superintendent Greg Pratt announced Monday that the school will tweak its second and third trimester schedules so they even out for the year.

For Larsen, “that means dropping one novel from my AP lit class so the students have enough time to explore the wonders of poetry. In my (English) classes, I’ll have to trim some ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Frankenstein.’” He also needs to help students prepare for the SAT, M-STEP and AP exams.

Online Learning Defies Vortex  

At Oriole Park Elementary in Wyoming Public Schools, third-grade teacher Ginger Vanderbeek has made the most of a tough situation. She sent out a Snow Day Challenge for students to read and do some work on a computer math program. Parents sent in photos of their children reading.

As the storm continued, she added to the challenge by posting math assignments online. Students could earn prizes and PAWS tickets, earned for good behavior, which they can spend on items at school. “Over half of my students took advantage of this opportunity and did a bit of work over the days off,” she said.

Other Oriole Park staff members read to students via Facebook or other online platforms and posed reading challenges.

The hardest thing is the effect on relationships caused by multiple days off, Vanderbeek said.

“I love my students and miss them,” she said. “They miss each other, so when we come back there has to be a bit of time to catch up and tend to those relationships, time to talk and listen to each other, before we can get started on the learning again.

“This is a time when the teamwork of parents and teachers becomes even more important,” she added. “As long as students continue to read at home and review a bit, student academic growth will continue, and they will come out of this unusual winter just fine.”

Improvising Around the Elements

At Grandville High School, Jennifer Ward’s 10th-grade class started reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ before the polar vortex hit. Now, to make up for missed time, Ward created a new reading schedule that includes wiggle room in case of additional snow days.

“Given the unpredictable weather we’ve been having, we just have to be prepared,” she said. “We’re learning to improvise.”

Ward also utilizes Google Classroom and social media during snow days to assign coursework in order to keep up with curriculum. Her Twitter feed features learning challenges for students and their families and posts assignments.

“I encourage students to read outside of the classroom and keep up to date on what’s going on so the transition back to class isn’t so hard,” Ward said. “I’m excited to have everyone in class again.”

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Schools work to minimize impact of #polarvortex2019 on district calendars, classrooms

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers and On-the-Town Magazine. She has been covering the many exciting facets of K-12 public education for School News Network since 2013. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

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