South Dakota school district battle through rugged winter

April 27, 2023

UNDATED–Whether they sleep with a spoon under their pillow or turn their pajamas inside out – two rituals purported to bring about a snow day – South Dakota students haven’t lost the magic of a serendipitous day off from school.

And if school districts across the state have anything to say about it, they’ll always keep that magic.

While national media articles claimed snow days would be obsolete after the COVID pandemic normalized remote learning across the country, South Dakota school districts have only used remote learning in a few instances this past year — even with some rural districts calling off school over a dozen times.

That’s because remote learning can’t replace in-person learning, said Jamie Nold, assistant superintendent at Sioux Falls School District. The state Department of Education published a report in 2021 showing the impacts of the pandemic on learning loss. Over half of school leaders reported that at least a few to all students experienced learning loss.

“We know from COVID that remote learning was not the most advantageous way to educate kids,” Nold said. “There weren’t good results and there was significant learning loss. We haven’t used remote learning during snow days yet, and we would like to not have to use it.”

But the district is considering using remote learning for some snow days starting next year, he told the school board in an April meeting. Using some sort of learning to keep students engaged is better than nothing, Nold said, and it’s better than adding school days at the end of the year.

“We came to realize in-person is most effective, but that’s not always possible,” Nold said. “Having a virtual option when weather dictates things will help us meet some of those needs for when they can’t be in school.”

Makenzie Huber with the news organization South Dakota Searchlight (https://southdakotasearchlight.com) reports the  Sioux Falls School District called off school five days this school year for inclement weather. Rapid City, the state’s second-largest district, called off school four days, using remote learning for another two days.

The western school district’s practice is to only use remote learning when a snow day can be determined before 2 p.m. the day before, said Bobbi Schaefbauer, community relations manager for Rapid City Area Schools. The timing gives students, teachers and parents time to prepare, and it keeps “everyone on schedule.”

It’s common practice for school districts to plan a few extra days into their calendar in case of snow days. According to state law, elementary students must have no fewer than 875 hours in a school year. Older children must have no fewer than 962.5 hours.

While many school districts now have laptops for each of their students to take home, including districts like Lemmon in northeastern South Dakota and Highmore-Harrold in central South Dakota, many students live in the country — some up to 45 miles away from their school — and may not have reliable access to broadband internet.

“We have one-to-one but we try not to remote learn,” said JoLinda Hay, administrative assistant for the Lemmon School District. “Kids don’t like it and teachers don’t like it.”

Students aren’t as engaged through remote learning, Hay said. Lemmon has instead shifted its schedule to allow students to attend in-person: The district built eight possible snow days into its schedule this year (there’s still one left in case of a spring storm), and used eight late starts and six early dismissals throughout the winter.

In Highmore-Harrold, the rural central South Dakota school district called 12 snow days, using three-hour remote learning days for the last four snow days, said Superintendent Quinton Cermak. The district has added an hour onto Fridays since January, which are usually dismissed an hour early, instead of adding full in-person days to the end of the school year.

The 1,100-square-mile school district serves 214 students with about half living in town and the rest in the country, Cermak said. The three-hour remote learning days condense class periods into 20-minute segments. Students in seventh through 12th grades bring their laptops home with them while young children bring home paper assignments.

Shortening the school day allows students to keep their “free” day, but also keeps content fresh in their minds, Cermak added. It also increased attendance compared to full remote-learning days used during the pandemic.

Cermak has been with the school district for 10 years. The district typically only sees three snow days a year. Going forward, Cermak plans to allow students those first three traditional snow days but then implement the three-hour remote learning if more school is called off due to inclement weather.

“Three-hour days are a great compromise,” Cermak said. “You’ll still get a good portion of that magic free day, but give us three hours of your time so we don’t have to take away your spring when it’s actually nice out and you can go to the river, work outside or do more fun things than sit in school.”