New Brunswick

Province needs to tackle mounting snow days, education expert says

With summer around the corner, the last thing New Brunswickers want to think about is winter, but a new study is recommending a number of government policy changes to cut down on snow days and make up for lost time.

Paul Bennett says between 9 and 16 days lost to snow days each school year

A researcher in Nova Scotia says students should have a guaranteed 180 days of school instruction each year. (The Associated Press)

With summer around the corner, the last thing New Brunswickers want to think about is winter, but a new study is recommending a number of government policy changes to cut down on snow days and make up for lost time.

Paul Bennett, a researcher with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says there is an average of nine to 16 days lost each school year due to weather.

He said that number could be lowered by putting seatbelts in school buses and making school routes a priority for snow plows.

"It's not so much whether schools should be cancelled, it's when, how much and with what consequences," said Bennett.

This week, the Nova Scotia researcher released his study, Missing in Action: School Storm Days, Student Absenteeism and the Workplace.

The study looked at how storm closures adversely affect learning outcomes, contribute to student absenteeism and impact labour productivity in the workplace in provinces like Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

"Storm day cancellations mount, public concerns surface, school authorities react and say they're concerned, reports are issued, school days are lost and written-off, never to be recovered and nothing much changes," he said.

"This has been going on for 10 years."

Winter storms and power outages are among the reasons New Brunswick students receive fewer than 700 hours of instruction each year, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said in December 2018. The Canadian average is about 900 hours.

George Daley, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association, disputed Cardy's numbers, saying they are outdated and the number of instructional hours is much higher.

The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development said it was unable to provide CBC News with the most recent figures by end of day Friday.

Earlier this year, the New Brunswick Teachers' Association argued there are more important issues in education to discuss than snow days.

In February, Education Minister Dominic Cardy said keeping New Brunswick schools open on snow days may be the way to go in years to come. (CBC News)

"We recognize there is a loss of classroom hours when there's a snow day, but we also recognize we've been dealing with this for a long time," said Daley said.

Daley said changes are made to "the delivery of curriculum and individual student work time" in the classrooms to make sure all the material is covered. 

Student absenteeism

Bennett said there's growing evidence that lost school days hurt student performance.

New Brunswick's Auditor General Kim MacPherson said in a report in January 27 per cent of students in grades 9 to 12 in an unnamed school district are chronically absent.

We need a flexible school calendar for makeup instructional days and it needs to be built into the negotiations with the teaching union.- Paul Bennett, researcher

"If you're a high school student that's struggling, that's missing school to begin with, school is cancelled on a Thursday, are you really going to go on a Friday?," he said.

Bennett is also calling for a further study of the impact of school cancellations on working families and the economy.

"It really falls unevenly on wage labourers and those that are in small enterprises where there are only one or two employees," he said.

Although severe weather and dangerous roads are something to be concerned about, Bennett said students should have a guaranteed 180 days of school instruction each year. In states like Massachusetts that see similar amounts of snowfall, students are required to go to school 180 days of the school year, he said.

"We need a flexible school calendar for makeup instructional days and it needs to be built into the negotiations with the teaching union," he said.

Homework bags during storms

He also said teachers should routinely prepare homework bags for students "when there's a forecast for storms that are going to knock school out for three or four days."

He said school districts should also look into e-learning for students during a snow day.

During winter storms, Bennett said teachers should routinely prepare homework bags for students. (CBC)

At least one New Brunswick school district, Anglophone North, is exploring the concept of e-learning for students during a snow day.

Although nothing is set in stone and the district is scouting different models, the district has said students using different technologies for online learning has been an ongoing discussion between administration, school principals and the province for years.

This is what happens behind the scenes when transportation managers see snow, ice or other trouble in the forecast. 1:48

Danielle Elliott, a spokesperson for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, said the province's first priority continues to be the safety of students.

"The practice of closing schools because of the weather needs to be part of the broader conversation on the importance of attendance," she said in an email to CBC News.

"We must engage in a public discussion in order to raise the level of importance placed on school attendance, and to solicit suggestions for improvement."

In February, Cardy said keeping New Brunswick schools open on snow days may be the way to go in years to come.

He suggested that on some days when it's not safe for school buses, schools could still open for students who can get there, he said. 

With files from Information Morning Moncton

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