Derry School District Moves Ahead with Blizzard Bags

The Derry Cooperative School District will move forward with the Blizzard Bag concept, while hoping they never have to use them.

Superintendent Laura Nelson gave a presentation on the “bags,” which provide at-home lessons for students on snow days, at the June 10 School Board meeting. While members had many questions, they agreed on a plan to pilot the lessons in the 2014-15 school year, and to do their homework before the students need to do theirs.

Nelson said in her introduction, “I’ve heard a lot of positive things about Blizzard Bags, and in casual conversation, several parents asked me if we were considering them. My answer was, ‘Absolutely yes.’”

Nelson gave a brief overview and definition of the concept. The idea plays off one used by the Meals on Wheels program, in which homebound seniors are given a “Blizzard Bag” meal in anticipation of inclement weather and their driver not being able to get out. “Education,” Nelson said, “followed suit.”

The educational Blizzard Bag is a well-planned alternative to the traditional school day, Nelson told the board and television audience, saying, “It’s an opportunity to continue learning at home.” It isn’t just for snow days, she said, but for windstorms, ice storms, floods and even public health issues such as the avian flu scare a few years ago.

The program is highly structured, according to Nelson. The New Hampshire Department of Education rules require 80 percent student participation in order to have a Blizzard Bag day count. Some schools define “participation” more narrowly, some more broadly, she observed.

Nelson used data in determining whether the bags are right for Derry. She partnered with the district technology team to develop a parent survey and a staff survey.

For the parent survey, 1,145 family units participated. The survey included five questions: grades of children, which school they attend, had they ever heard of Blizzard Bags, were they in favor of them, on a scale of 0 to 5, and comments.

Nelson said in the parent survey, 44 children were in the DEEP (Derry Early Education Program) preschool; 161, kindergarten; 177, first grade; 205, second grade; 195, third grade; 205, fourth grade; 184, fifth grade; 219, sixth grade; 192, seventh grade; and 182, eighth grade. Nineteen families had children in DEEP, 180 at Derry Village School, 176 in East Derry Memorial School, 251 at Ernest P. Barka, 101 in Grinnell, 142 in South Range, 283 in Gilbert H. Hood Middle School and 249 in West Running Brook Middle School.

Asked if they had heard of Blizzard Bags, 813 or 71 percent said yes; 322 or 28.12 percent said no; and fewer than 1 percent or 10 families said they weren’t sure.

Were they supportive? Nelson said 979 or 85.88 percent said yes; 95 or 8.33 percent said no; and 66 or 5.79 percent were “other.” Five respondents skipped the question, she said.

She received 24 pages with 549 individual comments, she said. These ranged from “It only makes sense” to “I’m not sure it would be useful if the child doesn’t know how to do the work.”

For the latter Nelson said, “We would build in a mechanism for the students to understand it.”

Pinkerton Academy, where Derry students are tuitioned to high school, has already implemented Blizzard Bags.

Nelson said a team of Derry educators visited Kearsarge Regional Middle School in North Sutton the previous week. Kearsarge pioneered the concept in New Hampshire, she said. “They set the standard for what the New Hampshire program will look like,” Nelson said.

Kearsarge piloted its program in the 2009-10 school year, according to Nelson. “They have it down to an art,” she said. After seeing how Kearsarge works the program, she said, “We left there ready to get started.”

In addition to reducing the number of make-up days at the end of the year, the Blizzard Bag concept is in line with real-world learning, Nelson said, adding, “Children today need to think outside the box.” In the world they’re growing up in there will also be times they have to work at home or in a nontraditional setting, she said.

The Blizzard Bag is not a cure-all for snow days, Nelson said. For one thing, the state allows a maximum of five “bag” days, and she had to cancel school six days this past winter. And back-to-back Blizzard days are not an option, she said, because of the amount of teacher preparation required.

Other parent concerns included “how much homework” and “what if there’s no power at my house?” The amount of work will be developed before the bags are instituted, Nelson said. As for power outages, she said she’s in constant touch with the Derry Department of Public Works during inclement weather. If the power goes down in a section of town she won’t activate Blizzard Bags for the rest of the district, she said, noting that it wouldn’t be fair.

But the program might not necessarily involve electronics, she added. One team of teachers at Kearsarge used a novel for their snow day work. The students checked it out at the beginning of the year, and had it at home when inclement weather struck, she said, and did assignments relating to the book.

In her teacher/staff survey, Nelson garnered 274 participants, of whom 85 were interested, eight neutral and seven not interested. The teachers were 12 from DEEP, 123 from grades K-3, 94 from grades 4-5 and 102 from the two middle schools.

Asked if they’d heard of the concept, 261 or 95 percent said yes; 13 or 4.74 percent said no. On a scale of 0 to 5 for interest, the average was 4.38, with 64 percent “very interested,” 20 percent “somewhat interested,” 8 percent neutral and 7 percent not interested. There were 116 written comments out of 274 respondents.

Nelson detailed the process, which includes establishing a Blizzard Bag team to plan the curriculum and apply to the state Department of Education; submitting the application; presenting the draft to the School Board; holding a public forum to gather input; and a “roll-out” to introduce the concept to students.

Nelson said she hoped be approved for three days in the first year, but would likely only use two of them.

Board members expressed some reservations. Ken Linehan wanted to know more, including what would be expected of parents and how the lessons would align with the curriculum. “What problem are we trying to solve?” Linehan said, adding, “I don’t necessarily see snow days as a problem.”

Linehan said, “We need to see more before we submit this to the state. I think it’s a good idea, but we don’t know how it’s going to work.”

Therein, Nelson said, lies the Catch-22 of the program. “It’s a lot of work, and I don’t think we should ask the teachers to work on developing this if we’re not going to submit it to the state,” she said, noting that in order to answer Linehan’s questions, the pilot needs to be developed.

Nelson said the “problem” is that with New England weather, children in Derry’s School Administrative Unit (SAU) 10 can miss two to three days of school in a row. While there won’t be consecutive Blizzard Bag days, it’s still a long time to be out of class, and an alternative lesson will help, she said.

Also, she said, the number of snow days often results in children being released for summer vacation at a later time.

Nelson said the lessons would not be “busy work,” but aligned with the curriculum and Common Core.

Member Dan McKenna asked what the teachers’ responsibility is, and Nelson said in Kearsarge, high school teachers were expected to be online to answer questions during the regular school day, which in that district is 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. “They are not on call 24 hours,” Nelson said.

Member Brenda Willis brought up the question of working parents, who often have to leave a child in day care or take that child to work with them. Nelson said that would be factored in. Some children in the Kearsarge district do their Blizzard Bag work the day before a snow day, and take the day off, while other highly-motivated students do all their Blizzard Bag work at the beginning of the year.

Willis said, “I’m with Ken on this. I like the concept because it does protect the end of the year. But if they get the bag in September or October and don’t use it till January, how does it fit in with the rest of the curriculum?”

That, Nelson said, is where teamwork comes in. One group of Kearsarge fourth-grade teachers collaborated on a science topic they “never seemed to get to” during the regular school year, and covered it for their science Blizzard lesson.

McKenna asked if the bags could be implemented in the 2015-16 year. Nelson said she believed the district could develop them this summer and introduce them this fall, with at least one lesson “in the bag” by Dec. 1.

Willis made a motion to apply to the state for five days beginning in fall 2014. The board unanimously approved it. Linehan reminded Nelson to make sure the board is involved, with regular updates on the process.

Nelson said she expects to do more parent-staff surveys after the pilot year.