DESE Memo on Alternative to Snow Days

MTA Note: At this time, MTA has not taken a position for or against the use of alternative instructional strategies in case of inclement weather school closures. 

Alternative Structured Learning Day Programs

To:Superintendents and Charter School Boards of Trustees
Date: February 10, 2016

This memorandum provides information to assist school committees and charter school boards of trustees with the development of “alternative structured learning day programs”1 as possible solutions to scheduling issues posed by inclement weather.

Last year, due to the numerous blizzards and weather-related school closures the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (Department) received inquiries from districts about the option to develop a alternative structured learning day program so that the minimal student learning time requirement of 900 hours for elementary schools, 990 hours for secondary schools, and a total of 180-days would be met.

The Department also received inquiries about the option to lengthen the school day mid-year so that the minimal student learning time requirements of 900 and 990 hours could be met in fewer than 180 days. The Department has not previously approved requests to lengthen the school day mid-year and instead has encouraged leaders to think about alternatives that would enhance student learning while providing more flexibility to deal with weather-related closures, in addition to making every attempt to reschedule the lost days2.

The Department would like to make clear that the notion of alternative structured learning day programs should not be confused with the student learning time waiver process3, whereby the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education (Commissioner) has been granted authority to approve waivers for innovative programs that are expecting to regularly operate for fewer than the 180-day school year calendar or 900 hours for elementary schools and 990 hours for secondary schools established under the Massachusetts Student Learning Time regulations 603 CMR 27.00.

While the concept of alternative structured learning day programs is relatively new in Massachusetts, the Department recognizes that such programs are designed to reduce the number of additional school days beyond the 180 required days and minimize student learning disrupted by weather related emergencies by providing alternative learning activities for students that may be completed at home. These programs may be an alternative option for schools to pursue as long as they 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.

To the degree that learning outside of the school setting may rely upon parental involvement or access to technology, school committees and charter school boards of trustees must also account for the widely varying circumstances in students’ homes and guarantee that the alternative structured learning day program are accessible to all students. In general, alternative structured learning day programs that include a digital learning component must:

  • Consider how to accommodate students without internet or devices at home and households with multiple children who share a single device, for example, by developing paper materials to be used by those students who do not have internet access. However, in any case, the school must ensure that all students will have access to educational materials during a storm.
  • Be able to serve all students, including students who receive special education services.
  • Have teachers available who must participate on the days when the program is implemented.

Additionally, school committees and charter school boards of trustees must allow sufficient planning time for administrators, teachers, staff, and other members of the school community, as appropriate, to thoughtfully and transparently design the alternative structured learning day program prior to implementation. This includes the time needed to design the format and parameters of grade-level assignments, lessons, and/or projects for each participating grade, and if necessary, an online platform that will contain all alternative structured learning day related content and information. Given that inclement weather is somewhat unpredictable, leaders need to determine how to approach these challenges so the alternative structured learning days resemble the scope and depth of learning provided in a classroom lesson. Further, if your school committee or charter school board of trustees is considering developing and piloting such a program the following should be considered:

  • Determine the circumstances for which an alternative structured learning day program will be activated, and clearly communicate this to all stakeholders in the district. For example, a school committee of charter school board of trustees may determine that the program will go into effect after 3 weather-related school closures.
  • Set clear due dates for assignments and/or projects and clearly articulate what completion means.
  • Conduct a survey at the end of the pilot/implementation to allow feedback from stakeholders and to evaluate the success of the alternative structured learning day program.

Given that alternative structured learning day programs are a reasonable option for creatively making up missed school days due to weather-related closures, as well as the fact that districts are required to schedule 185-days, as a back up to the required 180-days, the Department will only consider hardship waivers 603 CMR 27.00 in extraordinary circumstances. Should you have any questions regarding hardship waivers, please contact Helene Bettencourt at hbettencourt@doe.mass.edu or 781-338-3120.

As a reminder, the concept of alternative structured learning day programs is relatively new in Massachusetts, with only one implementation by the Burlington Public Schools known to the Department to date. The Department would like to thank the Burlington Public Schools for providing valuable information about its experience implementing a pilot program in 2014-2015. View Burlington Public Schools Blizzard Bag website.

As schools move forward with the development and implementation of alternative structured learning day programs, the Department encourages you to share your process and any lessons learned.

Please email redesign@doe.mass.edu with any questions or concerns.

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