Chalk this up as a beneficial outgrowth of the entirely unbeneficial COVID-19 pandemic.
Used to be, an approaching hurricane or winter storm meant many students (and parents) would have to give up planned school holidays to make up the classes students had to miss when schools closed just in case. No one liked that, but what too often happened was even worse: Those days didn’t actually get made up, because the Legislature caved to pressure from parents who couldn’t figure out that their kids’ education was more important than their mini-vacations.
And we wonder why test scores aren’t where we'd like them to be.
But the pandemic brought remote learning from a geeky trial that a handful of districts were conducting — and that nobody felt comfortable doing — to a commonplace, of-course-that’s-what-we’ll-do solution to Hurricane Ian. And it will do likewise when snow and sleet threaten attendance.
So as Ian approached South Carolina on Friday, and in some cases on Thursday, schools sent their students home for a day of virtual classes.
Naturally this happened in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, and up and down the rest of the S.C. coast. And in the Midlands, which was initially expected to get a direct hit. But even far from Ian’s path, the Greenville County School District announced that it was switching to eLearning on Friday because winds were predicted to be up to 48 mph, and the state Education Department says schools shouldn't operate buses with winds of 40 mph or higher; plus, some schools had experienced power outages on Thursday and were expecting more Friday.
“Because we are an approved eLearning district, this day will not have to be made up and instruction will be provided through Google Classroom,” the district posted on its website. “Students will complete eLearning assignments later if they are unable to participate due to power outages, lack of internet service, or other barriers.”
That “approved eLearning district” language is important, because pre-COVID, only a handful of districts were even allowed to offer remote learning in place of in-class learning.
Now, none of this is to say that remote learning is ideal. One of the most important lessons we learned during the pandemic was that remote instruction is not an adequate substitute for in-person learning, not in the long term, and not even in the short term. Far from it. Even public health officials have criticized school districts and states for locking kids out of the classroom for so long, realizing that the damage done to students’ academic, social and mental health far outweighed the risk that being in a classroom posed to the students or the rest of society.
But it’s a lot better than no classes. And unfortunately, that’s what S.C. students too often used to receive when school was canceled for weather or some other emergency. State law requires public schools to provide students with 180 days of in-class instruction each year; it also requires districts to include three make-up days in their calendars to ensure that students get in all 180 days even if emergencies force brief school closures.
After school districts make up those first three snow days, state law allows them to "forgive" — or more accurately, steal — up to three missed days. And it allows the state Education Department to authorize forgiving three more days after that, and both the districts and the state used to do that routinely. In the 2018-19 school year, school districts statewide waived a total of 96 missed days, and the Education Department waived another 17. If schools have to close for more than nine days, the Legislature has been known to intervene and forgive more school days.
But after school districts got a crash course in remote learning and the federal government poured in a ton of money to help pay for better internet access and computers, something amazing happened. In the 2020-21 school year, the Education Department reports, there were no waived school days. That is, all of our public schools provided 180 days of instruction.
Of course, some of those were virtual days. And school leaders need to realize that it could sometimes be better to cancel classes and have a make-up day — particularly if too many students are taking the option to complete their virtual day later than on the day school’s closed. After all, if teachers are giving legitimate assignments and not just make-work, students who delay doing the work can miss important concepts they need to move on to the next subject. In fact, lawmakers might need to address that themselves if it becomes a problem.
But for now, it’s good to know that school leaders have an option — and that they are using it — to ensure that we don’t cheat kids out of the 180 days of instruction state law promises them.