Policy distance

Snow days were once so simple

The Nevada Education Department says under existing law, school days happen only in school buildings.

The Nevada Education Department says under existing law, school days happen only in school buildings.

PHOTO/DENNIS MYERS

Practical instructions for students on “Digital Days” can be read at www.washoeschools.net/Page/12155

On Friday, Feb. 16, the Washoe County School District called a “Digital Day” just 11 days after parents reacted strongly against the concept. It appears that when the district backed off on Feb. 5, a considerable number of parents thought the entire concept was being dropped in favor of a return to traditional snow days.

The parents weren’t the only ones. Some news reports said that Digital Days had ended, as with this KOH report: “The just-canceled program the district says was dropped over parent complaints, actually was ended after a January 4th memo from the outgoing Nevada Superintendent of Instruction.”

Actually the district dropped Digital Days regions, not Digital Days, and the district website still reads, “In lieu of snow days this year, the school district is mandating online classroom days.”

This is what the district said in its Feb. 5 statement:

“The Washoe County School District prides itself on being responsive to our students, families, staff members, and our community. We teach our students to listen and learn, and we strive always to model that behavior in all of our work. We are continually refining our processes and striving to improve our service to our families, and we appreciate their partnership and feedback. In the past, our District heard complaints from families and staff members who opposed a ’one size fits all’ approach to weather-related delays and Digital School Days, due to the fact that weather conditions can differ greatly in the 6,300 square miles in which our students and families live and employees work. As a result of these complaints, we created and implemented a regional approach to designating Digital School Days and two-hour delays. We did so because we sincerely believed that this approach would alleviate their concerns and counter their criticisms. We acknowledge that the system does not meet the needs of students, families, and staff members in a District of our size once we implemented the system for the first time today. Because we are a continuous learning and listening organization, we have reassessed the situation and decided to immediately return to the original District-wide approach of implementing Digital School Days or two-hour delays. In the future, we will use the notification system to which our students, families, and staff members are accustomed to declare District-wide weather-related changes in schedules.”

Digital Days are snow days during which schools try to continue the learning process by interacting with home-bound children from a distance.

The situation was not improved by the shifting stance of state officials. The Nevada Department of Education condoned the use of Digital Days in Washoe County in a letter dated June 13, 2017, according to the school district. But then it followed up with a memo last month that questioned the legality of the Washoe policy.

The Nevada Department of Education claims it told the Washoe district that its plan for Digital Days does not comply with state law. The district replied that NDE approved the county plan last June. However, NDE seems to draw a distinction between “distance education” and Digital Days. The term Digital Days was devised by the school district as a supposedly clearer term for distance education. The use of two different terms for the same policy probably fostered confusion.

NDE also said Washoe Digital Days will not count as school days, which seemed to defeat the whole purpose of having them.

The Digital Days policy seems like one that would have worked in the 1950s, when families could function on a single income and one parent remained home in the daytime. But in 2019, with both parents working in most households, school children on snow days may not get to school, but parents are still expected to get to work. Will students at home alone make themselves do the assigned work?

In addition, parents were not bewitched by the idea that educators can now reach inside the home and decide how students will spend their time.

“If my daughter is at home, she’s not at school, and that breaks that tie,” the father of a Dilworth Middle School student told us. “I’ll decide how my child spends her time at home, and I’m going to tell my legislator that.”

If he follows through, it will be unusual. Legislators we contacted said they are not hearing about the issue.

“A snow day is murder,” the mother of a Sparks High student said after the first Feb. 5 Digital Day. “We have to scramble to make it work, since both of us [parents] work. I don’t need another item to cope with. And this one was a big, big task.”

Moreover, the use during Feb. 5 of a mix of zones and two-hour delays caused confusion that resulted in an explosion of social media distress.

One parent we spoke with said neither she nor her children have the devices to make Digital Days work, and she resents low income families being put in such a position.

Some journalists took the NDE opinion as conclusive and reported as fact the opinion’s conclusion that Digital Days are illegal. In fact, the district has its own legal counsel and is free to rely on those lawyers. The state opinion was signed by state schools Superintendent Steve Canavero, who is not an attorney.

Canavero ended his memo, “We certainly hope that you will engage in conversation with the legislature regarding your proposal and how the challenges the WCSD is experiencing in this area could effect a change in legislation.” ThisisReno.com reports that the district has been in discussions with legislators.

The Washoe district first tried out Digital Days in a pilot program on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe’s North Shore last year, which some officials said might lead to the California side of the lake using the program. If that was likely, it may no longer be, since the publicity has cooled off some parents. In the Tahoe Tribune, one parent posted a reader comment: “Some kids just don’t have an environment at home conducive to learning. This policy harms children already at a disadvantage and should never have happened. I sincerely hope that here in LTUSD [Lake Tahoe Unified School District], with our extremely high population of poor, homeless, and children living in volatile home situations, that this is never implemented. We already have these failing programs of the ’sports school,’ ’science school,’ ’art school,’ and an uninteresting and test targeted curriculum. Let’s not further set our children back by failing to recognize that they all deserve equal ground to stand on.”