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Some Maine Districts Forgo Virtual Learning, Opt For Traditional Snow Days

Robbie Feinberg
Maine Public
Freya Carlson of Gardiner shovels snow off of a play house in her yard on Thursday morning.

In any other year, the storm that blasted through southern Maine on Thursday morning would have prompted a snow day in most school districts. Some did call off classes, but with thousands of students now being educated through “hybrid” and “remote” learning, some districts chose to go forward with online classes.

It was nearly impossible to see through the rapidly falling snow in Gardiner on Thursday morning, but Freya and Hanna Carlson were happy to be outside. The two frolic by a playhouse in their yard, scraping flakes off the roof and belly-flopping into the snow.

The year has been tumultuous, they say, as they’ve alternated between remote and in-person learning. So when their mom, Meagan, told them that the snow meant a full break from all of that on Thursday, they celebrated.

“I was happy. I was like, yay,” Hanna says.

“She actually did say that, I think,” Freya says. “And I started singing a song. And I was thinking, ‘We could watch TV and play fairies all day long.’ And it was really fun.”

This year, as technology and remote classes have become a necessity for districts across the state, some schools are opting to stick with remote classes even as snowstorms rage outside. On Thursday, schools in Westbrook, Bath and Topsham all opted for “remote learning” days, with students still working from home.

In an email, Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia says that “kids (and staff) are not expected to take part in virtual classes” on Thursday, but to complete independent assignments themselves. Lancia says that any work on Thursday shouldn’t exceed the district’s recommended amount of screen time, as administrators still want families to enjoy the snow.

But at other schools, traditional snow days have been preserved — at least for now.

“Many of our students don’t have reliable internet service throughout a regular school day, let alone a cancellation day,” says Ty Thurlow, principal of Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, which opted for a traditional snow day on Thursday.

Thurlow says internet access is still an issue for many students, making remote learning difficult. But he also wants to make things a bit easier for families in a year full of stress and loss.

“We will return to our more serious and important business of learning and growing up tomorrow,” he wrote in a letter to the community Thursday morning. “But for today, my hope is that you will take this opportunity to simply be young people and enjoy this time in your lives.”

“Hoping we can bring a little bit of magic, if you will, back to our students. Who are really focused on a very uncertain future. So just bringing a little bit of joy to them,” Thurlow says.

But he says the district may change its plans for other snow days over the next few months. He says it is important for students to maintain learning, so teachers have been working to prepare online lessons, YouTube videos and assignments that won’t require a constant connection to the web.

“And so those are learning opportunities,” Thurlow says. “We’re moving the stick forward, if you will. And keeping that progression moving along. But not necessarily doing it with a live session, where we would be expecting students to jump online at 9 a.m., because that’s when the class starts.”

Outside of her house in Gardiner, Meagan Carlson watches her two daughters crawl around in their snowsuits. She says after months of corralling her kids as part of their various remote and hybrid learning schedules, she’s welcoming the one-day reprieve.

“I think we’ve had enough of, ‘Every day is exactly the same,’ this year. So staying home and doing your school online is just another one of those, every day is the same. So, ‘Hey, it’s snowing, we’re having a snowstorm, you can do whatever you want,’ I think that’s special for the kids,” she says.

And Carlson hopes that in her district, at least, snow days aren’t a thing of the past.