Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies, and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.
Guest Host: Christina Bellantoni
Last night, school systems around the region began sending out word of yet another weather-related closure. Snow days bring excitement for kids and frustration for parents. They disrupt classroom instruction. But some recent studies have found that concerns about the “snow day effect” are overstated.
- Dave Marcotte Professor of Public Policy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
- Joshua Starr Superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools (Md.)
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Christina Bellantoni, Editor-In-Chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo. Later in the broadcast, feminist art icon Judy Chicago is here. But first, the impact of snow days and school closures. While kids wear their pajamas inside out in hopes of waking up to a snow day, parents often dread the news that school is closed. Last night, school districts around the region began sending out word of yet another closure because of snow. It's the eighth snow day in Montgomery County.
MS. CHRISTINA BELLANTONIThe ninth in Fairfax County. And the fifth in D.C. Today's closure may have been an easy call, but on days that are less clear, school administrators know they're opening themselves up to the wrath of parents if they decide to close. And they know lost days can impact both families and classrooms in a variety of ways. Joining us to discuss the impact of snow day on a very snowy day ourself, both guests are here by phone. Joshua Starr is the Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools. Hi Joshua.
MR. JOSHUA STARRHi Christina. Thanks for having me on today.
BELLANTONIThank you. And we're also joined by Dave Marcotte. He's a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He was a principal investigator of a multi-year study examining the impact of unplanned school closures on student achievement. Also joining us on the phone. Hi Dave.
MR. DAVE MARCOTTEHi Christina. How are you?
BELLANTONIGreat. Thank you very much, both, for joining us, on a very snowy day. We can see from the outside of our studios here at WAMU. I'll start with you, Josh. The ultimate decision about whether to close school because of the weather rests with you, but you get advice from lots of people, so explain the decision making process and what time that really begins.
STARRSure. And actually, you can go on our website to the fabulous video that my folks just produced to explain how the decision's made, but it really starts the day before, tracking the weather, you know, all the predictions and all the weather patterns, et cetera. And then, around two in the morning or so, folks start driving the streets to see what it's like, and we just keep tracking the weather. We're in touch with the county people. You know, you just get as much information as you can possibly get, see what's going on in neighboring districts, et cetera.
STARRAnd then I get a phone call at about 4:30 or so from my Chief Operating Officer with a recommendation, after he's talked to all the other folks. And then I make the call at about 4:30, and then we get the message out there. And I have to say, if I may, can I just please give a shout out and a huge thanks to all our building service managers, operations folks. These guys have been working so incredibly hard to clean up. We're running low on salt. Everybody is, but people in the county are working so hard, both on the county side and the school side, to keep the streets safe and clean and to keep the schools safe and clean.
STARRSo, thank you guys for all that you're doing out there.
BELLANTONIWell, that's very nice, and of course, we should give a shout out to everyone here who's making it easier for all of us to get outside today in the D.C. area. So, thanks very much. So, today is the eighth snow day in Montgomery County this school year. So, how many snow days do you and other districts in the area build into the school calendar, and what happens when you go over that number?
STARRSo, we build in four. So, we've already shot that. And right now, we are going four days over, which will take us to Wednesday, June 18th. Originally, we would have ended school on Thursday, June 12th. We'll go to Wednesday, June 18th as of now, but, you know, the winter's not over yet. Although, we hope it is.
STARRYeah, exactly. And then, you know, we might get a waiver from the state, but we have to wait a few weeks to even determine what the final sort of tally is, and then we may be able to apply for a waiver. But right now, as of today, we're going to Wednesday, June 18th, but it's tentative.
BELLANTONIWow. And, obviously, this is different in whatever county that you live in, so parents are paying attention locally. And interesting that you're putting out multimedia to sort of explain your decision making process. Is that because of criticism from parents?
STARRNo. Not because of criticism, but we know that people don't really pay attention to it or think about it until it's time to pay attention and think about it. So, you know, we did get a lot of questions about it. We thought, why not put a video out there for peoples' edification, so they can just understand how we make the call. And it was really just because of questions we got -- when you're a superintendent, you know that no matter what call you make, some people will criticize you and some people won't. And you always err on the side of student safety.
STARRAnd that's always what we do. But the video just helps people understand how we make the call.
BELLANTONIExcellent. So, and Dave Marcotte, bringing you in, you are a Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. What is the snow day effect, and what impact do these unplanned closures have on student performance?
MARCOTTEWell, the effects are substantial, in many ways. And especially in Math. In the work that you cited, I've looked at results in Maryland and Colorado and Minnesota and Virginia. And we estimate that about losing a week to snow every year is gonna reduce the number of kids who pass the state Math assessments by about two percent. Just to fix ideas, about 80 percent of kids in Maryland pass the Math assessment's typical grade this year. So, it's not a huge effect, but not a trivial one either.
BELLANTONII thought that it's definitely a huge effect. So, we, you know, when you looked at this data, this huge impact -- I mean, how is it affecting children overall, in addition to the test scores? What does it affect? Is it a continuity issue, as well?
MARCOTTEWell, we aren't able to assess the extent to which the continuity is the issue, but the fact that it's especially large in Math suggests that, you know, Math is a skill that is most exclusively learned in school. So, kids who are staying home today are probably reading books, "Harry Potter" or something else, but probably none of them are doing Math right now. So, taking them out of the classroom is where you're gonna have an effect on that subject, in particular.
BELLANTONIOK, so parents listening at home, you should be creating a Math game out of the snow right now.
STARRMy sixth grader is re-reading "Harry Potter" right now. Gee whiz, maybe I should get her on some Math problems.
BELLANTONIAnd actually, you can also weigh in. Tell us, are local school districts too quick to cancel class? Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send a tweet to @kojoshow. And of course, get involved on our Facebook page. So, Dave Marcotte, I'll come back to you again. We should say that this is not a simple one to one relationship. If it was, we could simply schedule even more school days and do away with summer break altogether.
MARCOTTEAbsolutely. So, the extent to which we can repair things by adding in more days at the end of the year, as Mr. Starr has described is happening in Montgomery County, it's -- we don't really know the extent to which that's gonna help solve the problems, as teachers and parents likely know. Time in June -- the classroom is very different than time in February. So, how to solve the problem is not obvious, but it is clear that when you have bad years like we're having this year, there's gonna be a consequence, and the consequence is poor performance in the classroom.
BELLANTONISo, Josh Starr of Montgomery County Public Schools, how do you weigh the educational impact when you decide if you're closing schools for snow?
STARRWell, you know, interestingly, we won't be able to actually measure the impact on state tests this year, because this is -- MSA starts right now, unfortunately. We actually have to give the test, even though it doesn't mean anything. So, we're not gonna have an accurate measurement right now. I think, you know, what it really does to folks is it throws people off their rhythm. You know, teachers struggle to get through all the content. And parents are home with their kids. It really just throws people off their rhythm.
STARRKids, teachers, families, et cetera. And I think that does have an impact in the classroom, because, you know, school is about structure and about a certain rhythm too, and an expectation of when you're gonna be there. And when we have multiple snow days like this, it does drive people a little crazy. I don't know that there's gonna be a straight line between achievement and time missed in the classroom right now, because I know our teachers work really, really hard to make it up. But, we'll have to assess all that and take it into account, and there's just nothing you can really do about it, cause this is all beyond our control.
BELLANTONIDo teachers give, let's say, extra homework when they're leaving on a Friday? I mean, we knew this storm was coming.
STARRI think different teachers do it differently. I'm sure the high school level, you know, a lot of the teachers use Ed Line (sp?) , et cetera. And the kids know what they have coming up, and I hope that a lot of them take responsibility to do their work. But the teachers also don't want to get too far ahead, and not everybody has access, you know, to the internet at home and things like that. So, they have to balance all that. There are a lot of kids that are certainly doing work that they need to do.
BELLANTONIThen of course, there's more serious consequences, right? Because thousands of children rely on free or reduced price meals they get at school. It might be the only thing they eat for that day, so does that factor into your decision as well?
STARRWell, you know, we -- it certainly -- so, 50,000 of our kids are on free and reduced price meals. And many of them, as you said, rely on us for breakfast and for lunch. We, you know, safety is always the number one concern, but we also run daycare programs that go on the 12 year schedule -- 12 month schedule, so there are times when we really want to try to keep daycare centers open so that working parents, who, you know, are working on hourly wages, something like that, have a place to send their kids. And we, of course, want to take into account to the extent we can, getting kids to a safe place in school where they can eat.
STARRBut the problem is, they have to get there safely, and if we can't do that, then unfortunately, we're not able to offer food service. And that's really unfortunate, cause we do have 50,000 kids in our county that rely on free and reduced price meals.
BELLANTONIOut of how many?
STARROut of 151,000. Growing by 2500 a year. So, we're growing, and we are -- we have a lot of kids who are pretty vulnerable.
BELLANTONIAnd are the daycare centers open today, or no?
STARRNo. No, they're not. You know, you can't have people on the roads today.
BELLANTONISo, bringing back in Dave Marcotte, The University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback when it comes to second guessing these decisions, but at the same time, you saw what happened in Atlanta after so many students were stuck in buses for hours. Because they were sent to school when it didn't look like that storm would be as severe as it was.
MARCOTTERight. So, absolutely. The first and most important consideration is the safety of kids. And to make the point that when you don't have school, you don't learn is not to make the point that we ought to be in school at any cost. So, I just -- my work is just to illustrate the extent to which kids are going to learn less when we have less school, not to make the case that we then ought to get them into school and put them at risk.
BELLANTONISo, Josh Starr, one question parents often ask is why the big school districts in our area don't create zones where some schools might be able to be open. Others would close in bad weather. You might just filter them there. Is that possible?
STARRIt's really not. And I understand the logic of it. But first off, we have so many different kind of potential weather patterns. It's not like it's really clear what those zones would even be. But the second and most important is, we bus kids all over the county. We have multiple choice programs. Kids are in magnet schools. So, if you live in -- you know, if you divide up into zones and you're living in a zone where your home school is one zone, your magnet school is another zone. What do you do, right?
STARRAnd the other thing is we have staff that come from all over. I mean, we have staff from Frederick and Howard. We have staff that live out in West Virginia, Hagerstown, you know, cause they can't afford to live in Montgomery County. So, it just -- I understand the logic behind it, but it really doesn't work. And they tried. I mean, they did an analysis years back to see if it was feasible, but it really wouldn't work to go to zones.
MARCOTTEThere are zones in Baltimore County. There's a zone called the Hereford zone. It is, in fact, very rarely on a different schedule than the rest of the county. I think this year is the first year in many where there have been different calls in that zone. And for the reasons Mr. Starr said, many of the kids who live there go to schools in the other part of the county. So, it's not clear that it's solving any problems here.
BELLANTONIWell, thank you to you both. Very interesting discussion, and hopefully talking to you again won't be necessary this winter, but I really appreciate your perspective on the snow day effect. Joshua Starr is the Superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, and Dave Marcotte is the Professor of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I'm Christina Bellantoni, Editor-In Chief of Roll Call, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we'll be right back after a short break with feminist artist, Judy Chicago.
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