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It’s Not Just Snow Days: How Can Districts Work Extreme Weather Into Their Calendars?

From torrential rain and mudslides to tornadoes and dramatic snowfall totaling more than 7 feet in some places, California has taken a beating through the first two months of 2024.

The severe weather has taken a toll on schools, at times forcing districts to close campuses, interrupting routines and academic progress. It’s a phenomenon that experts say is likely to increase in frequency across the country as climate change accelerates and triggers more severe weather events, especially in areas that might not be accustomed to them.

It raises an important question for district leaders: How, if at all, should school calendars be adjusted to account for climate change?

Districts throughout much of the country already build snow days into their calendars, but have found themselves in recent years calling off classes for other weather conditions. Some are considering adding more inclement weather days to the calendar so they have additional wiggle room to call off classes when wildfire smoke affects air quality or rain floods major roadways. Others are adopting protocols to guide their decisions in response to more novel weather conditions.

In early February, as large amounts of rain pummeled areas of California, causing mudslides and rock flows that blocked roads across much of the state, the Los Angeles district remained open. The move drew sharp criticism from some who argued the conditions were comparable to those that prompt districts in colder climates to shutter buildings for snow.

“You’re always going to make 50 percent of your audience happy, 50 percent unhappy,” Superintendent Alberto Carvalho told the Los Angeles Times. “We make decisions on the basis of scientific data that’s available to us, always leading with safety and security for our kids and the workforce.”

He added that keeping schools open allowed students to receive school meals, and that he heard from a working single mother who said she was grateful schools stayed open because she didn’t know how to get child care lined up on short notice.

Another Los Angeles parent told the Times the school district “should have rain days available,” like snow days, to accommodate for extreme weather.

The situation is just one of many illustrating the compounding impacts of climate change and extreme weather on schools, and the tricky balance district leaders face between ensuring the safety of students, staff, and families and maintaining academic routine, providing a safe space for children with nowhere else to go, and offering meals to those who rely on school for breakfast and lunch.

It’s not just snow anymore

In Northfield, Minn., school leaders are familiar with the snow day routine.

But last summer, district leaders for the first time developed guidelines about when to cancel activities or classes due to air quality concerns, Superintendent Matt Hillmann said.

After a few days in the spring with elevated risk levels and outreach from parents concerned about children with asthma and other health conditions, Hillmann and his team developed the guidelines—based on recommendations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency—and decision matrixes to inform their reactions to future air quality concerns and extreme heat.

So far, the district has only used the new guidelines to make smaller-scale decisions, like moving outdoor athletics practice indoors. It hasn’t yet had to use them to decide whether to cancel school or move classes online for a reason other than snow, Hillmann said.

Still, it signals a shift in how climate change is affecting school district leaders’ thinking about weather and natural disasters.

“Those are things that we never had to consider before that we do consider now,” Hillmann said.

The majority of educators, 58 percent, say their district has not changed the number of snow or inclement weather days built into the calendar in the past year, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey with responses from 953 educators.

Twenty-four percent of educators, meanwhile, said their district had reduced the number of days or eliminated them, while 6 percent said their district added days to the calendar, according to the nationally representative survey conducted in February and March.

In districts that changed the number of inclement weather days, 46 percent said they did so because students can now more easily learn remotely during bad weather. Twenty-nine percent of respondents said they simply have less winter-related inclement weather now than before.

Proactive planning

While adjusting schedules to respond to inclement weather and climate emergencies is a piece of the puzzle, the most important work may be in preparing school facilities so districts can prevent as many closures as possible, said Jonathan Klein, CEO of UndauntedK12, a national nonprofit that focuses on schools’ response to climate change.

Schools across the country, particularly in communities with larger populations of minority and low-income families, are old and have outdated infrastructure—like inadequate heating and cooling systems—that limit their ability to regulate internal temperatures or filter out smoke particles. Without updated systems, students who have historically struggled most to keep pace with their peers are the most likely to miss school when climate emergencies strike, Klein said, setting them further back.

“This is a threat multiplier for educational inequity,” Klein said. “It’s a serious issue that directly impacts kids’ learning opportunities.”

Klein suggested that districts proactively assess their HVAC systems and create plans for improving heating and cooling systems that aren’t up to the task. It’s also important, he said, for district leaders to plan for extreme weather events as part of emergency management planning.

They should consider questions about how safe it will be for people to get to school, if there are backup power banks at schools to keep kids safe, and whether emergency personnel will likely be able to respond if there’s an emergency while children and staff are on campus.

“We have to step back and acknowledge that young people spend 180-ish days in school every year, and that’s where they spend more of their waking hours than anyplace else,” Klein said. “The conditions on those campuses and in those facilities have to be resilient and able to keep them safe for learning.”

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