Department of Education ends program that allowed students to complete work from home in lieu of a snow day.

Last winter when a particularly brutal winter storm closed down Massachusetts schools, Kate Gibson, a fifth grader at Veterans Park Elementary School in Ludlow, pulled out a folder and got to work. It may have been too snowy to go to school, but that didn’t mean it had to be a day off.

Ludlow Public Schools was among several districts in the state to embrace the state’s Alternate Structured Learning Day program, assigning work during snow days or other school closures in order to count them as days of school for purposes of meeting legal requirements. Instead of tacking on days to the end of the school year to meet the mandated 180 days, “Blizzard Bags,” as they were dubbed, allowed teachers to create lesson plans and work to be taken home with students; the snow day still counting as a school day.

In 2015, Burlington Public Schools were the first in the Bay State to implement the program, with the concept catching on at districts peppered throughout the state in recent years.

Opponents of the idea said that blizzard bag assignments could not take the place of a full day of school with face-to-face instruction -- and that concern was especially relevant to parents of students on Individualized Education Programs due to special needs. Still, many districts -- and students and parents -- found the opportunity to complete assignments remotely a positive solution to a pile of school closure to make up.

“As educators we are looking to change public education to be more responsive to the needs of our students and communities. We are trying to utilize technology in new and innovative ways in order to break down traditional barriers and extend learning beyond the classroom,” said Ludlow Schools Superintendent Todd Gazda. “We successfully utilized blizzard bags for two years in Ludlow, refining our practice each year. Surveys indicated that a little over 77 percent of our parents were in favor of it after the first year.”

Many kids, although perhaps begrudgingly, saw a boon to the Alternative Structured Learning Days.

“I liked them for the most part,” said Kate Gibson. “I liked that we didn’t have to go to school longer in the summer.”

But in June, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced it was pulling the program, putting a stop to alternative structured learning days in 2020-2021 school year. The decision came after a work group convened last fall to review ten school districts -- both those with locally approved “blizzard bags” programs and those without. Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey C. Riley said the decision to end the program was based upon “a variety of factors.”

“Parents and other stakeholders have raised concerns about whether all students can have equitable access to these programs,” he said. “Additionally, concerns have been raised regarding whether such programs meet the standards for ‘structured learning time.’”

A spokesperson for DESE said they are unsure how many districts will be affected by the decision, as school systems utilizing Alternative Structured Learning Day programs were not required to notify the state. Schools with already approved programs may still utilize blizzard bags or e-learning days in the coming year.

Some district leaders are unhappy with the state’s decision to end the program. Superintendent for Orange, Petersham and R.C. Mahar Regional districts Tari Thomas told the Greenfield Reporter that the move seemed “regressive,” noting that remote learning is becoming more and more mainstream.

“What are we supposed to take away from the department's decision? That innovation is fine as long as it fits neatly within previously established parameters and doesn't look appreciably different than what we're already doing?” said Gazda. “No new idea is perfect. However, at a time when the Commissioner is encouraging innovation and expressing a willingness to work with us in the field, this decision is counterproductive. Rather than work with us to address any concerns about this idea and try to refine it, they simply decided to prohibit its use.”

In a memo regarding the program, the commissioner encouraged district leaders to look for other alternatives for meeting mandated learning days while dealing with school closures, such as rescheduling any lost days, and holding the first day of school prior to Labor Day. “Other possibilities include scheduling a one-week vacation in March instead of the week-long vacations in February and April,” he said.