Wednesday, January 07, 2015

“But My Kid’s School is Closed!”

When the local K-12 public schools close, should the local community college close, too?

They share something other than propinquity.  Many students and staff are also parents of school-age children..  When the K-12 schools declare a snow day, some are able to make alternate arrangements for childcare, but many can’t.  For employees, that can mean needing to take personal days; early in the year, that’s usually not a crisis.  For students, though, each individual professor sets her own attendance policy, so the risks of missing class when the college is officially open may vary from one course to another.

Faculty face a difficult question when half of the class is out because of weather.  Do you teach as if nothing were unusual, thereby putting those with school-age children at a disadvantage?  Do you move to a lighter lesson -- maybe a review -- and thereby essentially concede a day?  Do you give extra credit to those who showed up?  

Every year, we get a few stray cases in which the professor couldn’t make it, but wasn’t able to reach the college or the students to let anyone know.  The hardy souls who made it in tend to get understandably cranky when that happens.

The argument for following suit when most of the local K-12 schools close is that beyond a certain point, it’s unlikely that most classes will have critical mass to get much done anyway.  (Notice the phrase “most of” -- if you’re in an area with multiple districts, each making its own decision, then it’s entirely possible to have a hopscotch pattern of open, delayed-open, and closed districts.  The inconsistency makes the question that much more complicated.)  

The argument for staying open when possible is that K-12 students are more fragile than college students are, and enough college students don’t have kids that deferring always to those who do winds up imposing costs on everyone.

Online classes and materials can help reduce the cost of a lost day.  When a class is taught entirely online, of course, a snow day is relevant only if it knocks out power or internet connectivity. (That’s a major reason that our intersession offerings have moved to primarily online delivery.)  Even with traditional classes, if there’s some sort of online supplement, then it’s possible to salvage some educational value from a snow day.

I’ll admit that I’m treating K-12 weather closures as an independent variable, which can be misleading.  We’re subject to the same weather they are.  But we don’t bus our students, and our students are adults; weather that’s too severe for a six-year-old at a bus stop may be navigable for a twenty-year-old with a car.  Yes, some storms are bad enough that’s there’s really no decision to make. The tricky case is when the weather is bad enough to persuade many, but not all, of the local K-12’s to close, but it’s still driveable.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen elegant solutions to these dilemmas?  What should a commuter college do when most of the local K-12’s close?  And if it stays open but many students miss, what should faculty do that day in class?