Blizzard bags help schools make up lost time

Though the weather is finally getting warmer, Marietta City Schools students took home their first round of blizzard bags last week after the district implemented the system to help chip away at its 12 missed full days of school.

Though the idea behind the bags may be to provide work to do on the days that school is not in session, the Ohio Revised Code allows districts to create blizzard bag assignments during school closures or after students return to class.

School systems can replace up to three missed school days with take-home packets that include a full day’s work, and the system was approved by both the Marietta City Board of Education and the teacher’s union last week.

After delaying a decision to wait for action in the Ohio legislature, Marietta administrators decided using the blizzard bags will help keep students out of school in summer and pack in as much instructional time before standardized testing.

The choice came on the coattails of Gov. John Kasich signing House Bill 416 on March 26, granting schools four extra calamity days in addition to the five already allowed.

Belpre City Schools, Warren Local Schools and the Washington County Career Center are also taking advantage of blizzard bags, though the three districts started sending them home in late January and February.

“When they first started discussing it, everyone thought we’d have four additional days with no strings attached,” said Bill Lee, principal of Marietta High School. “Then they rethought it, and now to receive four extra days, the district had to implement a contingency plan.”

That rule means that four extra days have to be made up before a district can receive four more days excused. In Marietta, the district made April 2 a school day, after it was originally a professional development day, and will make up the other three days by using blizzard bags.

“You can’t replace a day with a teacher with independent exercises at home; it’s just not a fair trade. But we collectively decided it was a good option and it was there for us to use,” said Acting Superintendent and Marietta Middle School Principal Will Hampton, who helped lead the research into blizzard bags. “The effectiveness of going to June is not helpful, and you lose the impact every day.”

According to the Ohio code, once a district has been approved and distributes blizzard bags, students can be marked absent if they do not complete the lessons by the two week period, and the school day will be counted regardless of the level of participation.

As a result, Marietta students will finish for summer on the originally scheduled day of May 29.

The first blizzard bag was sent home March 28, followed by the second to go out on April 11 and the third to go out May 2. Students have two weeks to complete the assignments, which are available both in print and online.

“It’s an involved process time-wise, so the teachers had to have time to figure out how to approach it,” Hampton said.

In addition to regular class work, each blizzard bag also includes material from one of the “specials” classes for elementary students, beginning with physical education, then art, then music.

“It’s really a good option to get learning in before testing. That’s the big plus,” said Scott Kratche, principal of Washington Elementary.

Spring testing for the Ohio Achievement Assessment begins April 22 for third through eighth grade students.

“If everybody had it in place before the winter we would have had more time to prepare lessons,” Kratche said. “We learned and we reacted as quickly as we could, but we also didn’t want to throw it out without planning or considering anything.”

House Bill 416 also changed regulations to allow districts to adjust contingency plans-from blizzard bags to added school days-any time before the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

“I think it’s a good idea to make up the days, but I think they cover a lot more busy work than they would be getting in class,” said Rich Siley, who has children in third and 10th grade in Marietta schools. “And I feel like it’s checked more for completion than checking whether they actually did it right.”

With summer vacations and activities, many are grateful that the system will keep students out of school in June.

“I would rather them be doing this than going in summer,” said Karly Wynn, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Harmar Elementary School. “She was actually excited to do the work when she brought it home, and we do those sorts of things with her anyway.”

Wynn did express concern for younger children who might have parents that are not as involved, as the blizzard bags put the responsibility to make up for lost time on parents.

“For the little ones, it’s also a great time for parents and children to spend more one-on-one time together,” said Bonnie Stalter, a first grade teacher at Washington Elementary. “If they see what their kids are learning, it gives them an opportunity to share that with them.”

Stalter said she individually is trying to include packets that reinforce lessons students have already learned for review purposes so it can stay fresh in their minds for testing.

“I know it’s a state law, and I think it’s fine for just a few days like it is, but I do not think it should be much more than that,” Siley said.

Full completion of a blizzard bag is required in order for a student to make up one full day missed.