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A line of children make their way to school in a heavy snowfall on April 10, 2008, in Calgary.

Chris Bolin/The Canadian Press

There will be no more snow days this year at the Waterloo Region District School Board. Instead, students get to experience “Weather Impacted Distance Learning Days.”

It might not be the catchiest of phrases, but the Southwestern Ontario school board decided this week that schools will close and students will learn virtually when buses are cancelled in severe weather.

“I think families appreciate the option to continue the learning in a school year that’s been interrupted,” said spokeswoman Alana Russell, whose board has had as many as seven snow days in previous years. “It shows the evolving nature of education in that we can provide it both in person and online.”

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Educators have been increasingly concerned about the learning loss among children during the pandemic. Families struggled with online learning in the spring when schools abruptly closed to in-class instruction. To make matters worse, the start of this academic year in many parts of the country was delayed, and educators say more children have been absent from school, mostly because they’ve been home sick with cold symptoms.

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Boards in many parts of the country are looking at how they would accommodate students when buses are cancelled.

In Nova Scotia, Education Minister Zach Churchill indicated earlier this fall that the government may consider online learning so students don’t have to miss as much school because of the weather. “Right now, we are entirely focused on keeping our students safe and learning during COVID-19,” Violet MacLeod, a spokeswoman with the education department, said in an e-mail statement on Wednesday, indicating that the pandemic has forced boards to accelerate online learning.

However, Lauren McNamara, a research associate at the Ted Rogers School of Management’s Diversity Institute at Ryerson University, worries that the abrupt shift on snow days would add to the stress of families. Dr. McNamara researches the impact of daily recess on children’s development, behaviour and academic success.

“I’m more concerned with play loss than learning loss because of the way it relates to children’s mental health, which is a big concern right now,” she said. “Play can buffer the effects of stress by enhancing mood, circulation, social connection, energy, self-confidence and feelings of calm.”

She said that there could be learning loss, but we need to be mindful that it is an unusual year. “I personally think any form of relief for both children and parents will be welcome,” Dr. McNamara said. “It would seem to me there is more to be gained by a few days of play than by a few days of online learning.”

That thinking was behind Douglas Silvernell’s recent report to his board on keeping the traditional snow day procedures of students staying home if roads are unsafe. There would be no remote learning. Mr. Silvernell is the superintendent of the Cambridge Central School District in Cambridge, N.Y. The small rural school district has up to four snow days in any given year.

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“So many things have been changed for our children that we feel this is one normal thing they can look forward to,” Mr. Silvernell said. “Everyone is struggling in these times, so a little bit of normal might be a nice change of pace.”

Still, Wes Hahn, the education director at Ontario’s Trillium Lakelands District School Board, which includes Haliburton County, Kawartha Lakes and Muskoka, said if buses didn’t run because of the weather and he still kept schools open, those who walk would show up. That would mean mixing cohorts, which runs contrary to the advice of public health. The board was among those who recently decided that it would close schools on snow days and offer remote learning to online and in-school learners.

Mr. Hahn said that for high-school students, who are on an octomester schedule and taking one class at a time over roughly 20 days, they couldn’t afford to miss a day or two of a course. “It’s too valuable,” Mr. Hahn said. “We believe that switching to online, even on a snow day, is beneficial to kids.”

About 15 per cent of students at the Trillium Lakelands board have opted for virtual school, and those students would be learning whether it was a snow day or not. The rest would miss learning time if classes were cancelled on a snow day, Mr. Hahn said.

“We really don’t want to be in this position [of closing schools for snow days] at all, but if we have to be, we want to make sure kids are learning and they’re safe, and their teachers are safe, too,” he said.

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