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'Blizzard Bags' Yet To Catch On Among Most New Hampshire School Districts

Governor Wentworth School District

A snow day isn’t what it used to be for some students in the Granite State. Many New Hampshire schools are adopting what are known as blizzard bag days.

The concept has been popular among the schools that use it, but the program has yet to take off statewide.

You're 8 years old, and you're excited that there's a fresh blanket of snow on the ground. Then you get a phone message.

“Due to inclement weather and treacherous road conditions, school is canceled for all Governor Wentworth Schools.”

You start thinking snow day. But then...

“However, today we are holding a blizzard bag day. All students are reminded to log on to the Governor Wentworth website to participate in the planned activities."

For some New Hampshire students, this message has become the norm on a snowy morning. Instead of frolicking outside, they’re expected to complete a day’s worth of assignments.

It’s called a blizzard bag day, though often there isn’t a physical bag of assignments. Instead, most students access them online.

Here’s how it works: If 80 percent of students complete their assignments, then it counts as a day of school. That means one less day tacked onto the end of the school year.

The Kearsarge Regional School District came up with the idea in 2009. Superintendent Jerry Frew said after nine snow days his first year on the job, he knew something needed to change.

“We were going weeks on end without having a full school week and it’s just so disruptive to the learning process so we felt there had to be a better way to keep kids engaged.”

The first year for Kearsarge was a test run of sorts, and there have been adjustments along the way.

"The very first year, teachers just required and expected too much work. It was overwhelming. And so we tweaked that.”

The state Department of Education has since opened up the program to all districts. But so far, interest has been relatively low.

Only seven school districts and a handful of charter schools and private schools have signed up. University of New Hampshire Education Professor and former superintendent Todd DeMitchell says that’s not surprising.

“I would imagine that some of the schools are somewhat hesitant to take it on, to just jump to it without a chance to really look carefully at it. But those that are trying it are willing to try new things, which is good.”

The Unity and Litchfield school districts have signed up for the program, as has Cornish Elementary School, Nelson Elementary School, and Barnstead Elementary School. 

Among charter schools, the Academy for Science and Design in Nashua and the Great Bay E-Learning Charter School are on board. And private schools Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua and Crossroads Academy in Lyme are, as well.

There are several requirements, including making sure students who don’t have access to the Internet are still able to do the work.

Another is that teachers work during a blizzard bag day, too. They must be available and have remote access to work with students on questions they have about the assignments.

The Pembroke School District is trying it out for the first time this year, and so far the results are mixed.

When a big storm hit last month, the district as a whole hit the participation requirement, meaning the day counted, but the high school did not.

Pembroke Academy Headmaster Mike Reardon says that got them thinking.

“We decided that there’s no way that a blizzard bag day is going to replace a day of instruction. So what we’re going to use blizzard bag days for in the future is if we start piling up snow days.”

So what exactly do you do on a blizzard bag day? Pembroke Academy Senior Japhet French had to do some work for his foods class and English class.

“We just had to spend some time in the kitchen, we had to look up a couple different terms, we had to make sure that we cleaned up, found a recipe, we had a bunch of different options. And for English, I think they just added on some more reading.”

Senior Shelby Riel says she’s not surprised many of her classmates didn’t do the work.

“On snow days, I’m not really trying to do homework. Granted I did it. It was all over the social media sites saying do your blizzard bag. Like you had to know, the kids who don’t do their work in school, like are definitely going to do a blizzard bag.”

Katie Hiers has a daughter at Peterborough Elementary School. That’s in the ConVal School District, which is using blizzard bags this year.

She is a teacher in a neighboring school district, so she was home with her daughter during the storm earlier this week.

"At first, I was a little overwhelmed, there’s a lot of work they have to do, but in reality, you’re making up an entire day of school. And what you have to sit down and do with them doesn’t take as long as it would take do in school.”

She says the schools makes it easier by giving the packets several weeks in advance so students and parents can go through them and plan ahead.

School districts can use up to five blizzard bags days in a year.

The Kearsarge School District chose not to make this most recent storm a blizzard bag day. Jerry Frew, the superintendent, says one of adjustments he’s made is to not necessarily use it every time.

"One of the learnings we had was kids and families are just used to that traditional, old-fashioned snow day one in a while. And that is just kind of a cultural norm in New Hampshire.”

And it appears the Granite State is ahead of the curve with blizzard bags, as only a handful of other states appear to have similar programs.

So, for students in blizzard bag schools, you’re going to have to wait to build that snow man, and get to work.

Michael serves as NHPR's Program Director. Michael came to NHPR in 2012, working as the station's newscast producer/reporter. In 2015, he took on the role of Morning Edition producer. Michael worked for eight years at The Telegraph of Nashua, covering education and working as the metro editor.

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