Boston English teacher Becca Harbeson has been trying so hard to keep her 10th graders engaged in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet this winter that she’s resorted to text messaging them about the play. The city’s public schools have had eight snow days so far this school year, nearly all of them in the past few weeks. All the days off mean Harbeson’s students at Madison Park High School, located in Boston’s largely poor and minority neighborhood of Roxbury, have been missing several classes each week that she had hoped to devote to discussing the Bard — a text many of Harbeson’s students struggle with under the best of circumstances. So she’s using every means necessary to stay in touch.
These seemingly never-ending snow days are taking away valuable time from all students. But in excess they are most harmful to low-income students and their families, who education experts say are already more likely to be behind academically and rely more on the social services public schools provide.
Chief among these services and supports: Free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch, for which nearly 80 percent of Boston students qualify.
“For children living in families at or below the poverty line, the lunch and breakfast programs at school are often the main meals they receive,” said Lenette Azzi-Lessing, an associate professor at Wheelock College, an education school in Boston
School being closed means everything else in the building — like supervised after-school programs and other social services — is usually closed, too.
“Schools provide structure, particularly for children who aren’t well-supervised, whose parents can’t pay for quality childcare,” said Azzi-Lessing. “And schools provide warmth. Particularly with these very low temperatures we’re having right now in the Northeast, a lot of children are warmer at school than at home, where parents may be turning down the heat to save money.”
While some districts have become increasingly reliant on online work to make up for time lost to snow days, poor students are less likely to have access to the Internet outside school. At Wachusett Regional High School, a largely rural district located northeast of Worcester, Massachusetts, many students only have access to a computer in one of the school’s three labs. School librarian Alana Stern said teachers have had to push back due dates for assignments because students have had so few opportunities to use computers for research or writing. Teachers who normally bring their class to a computer lab have struggled to find time on the jam-packed schedule.
“I think some teachers have just given up even trying to get into the library,” Stern said.
Ideally, snow days provide time for unstructured play — sledding, constructing forts, building a snowman — that can aid in the cognitive development of young children, said Michael Middleton, dean of the education school at UMass Boston. But that play needs to be safe and supervised, which can be difficult for low-income parents who work an inflexible hourly job or live in unsafe communities. Meanwhile, wealthier white-collar parents, who have more flexibility to telecommute, take paid time off, or even bring their kids to work with them, can usually supervise their children more easily on snow days.
“It’s kids who are in underserved communities, whose parents are already stressed by work…who are most affected by this,” Middleton said.
That means the advantages of a snow day are far more accessible to affluent families, who also are more likely to read to their children or help them with homework. “Those kind of households are going to less impacted by being out of school,” Middleton said.
Schools already see a slide over the summer, when wealthier families are better able to send their children to enrichment activities like camp or vacation. The average student returns to school in the fall a month behind where he or she was the previous spring; the impact disproportionately affects low-income students.
One study in the news last month, by Harvard professor Joshua Goodman, found that cancelling school didn’t impact student performance on test scores; absences when students couldn’t make it to school in inclement conditions had a far greater impact. But his data was gathered from Massachusetts schools between 2003 and 2010, a span when the average school district saw about two or three snow days a year. “This year is just completely off the charts,” Goodman said. “It’s very hard to see how schools are going to make up this time.”
Goodman said the state may need to reschedule its annual state tests, the MCAS, since students won’t be making up lost time until June. “And as any ex-teacher knows,” he said, “a day in February is very different from a day in June.” Since low-income students already perform worse on the test on average, making up lost days could disproportionately hurt their performance.
For now, there isn’t much teachers can do beyond work hard, like Harbeson, to squeeze as much into the limited time they have. More snow is headed Boston’s way, and schools are closed next week for February break. And while wealthier families tend to have the structures and habits in place to make up for lost time, low-income families will face the brunt of this without much additional support from schools.
“I don’t think we’ve hit on a silver bullet yet,” Middleton said. “In some ways it will feel like a lost month for a lot of families.”
Matt Collette is a fellow for the Teacher Project, an education reporting initiative at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.