Study: Snow days smart for students

Pinpoint Closing Network: School closings, delays, early dismissals »

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Students across Southern New England were off from school Wednesday, but that’s not such a bad thing, according to a study released by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

The study, prepared by assistant professor Joshua Goodman, found that weather-related school closures do not have a negative impact on student learning, in part because the days are often made up at the end of the year.

Goodman also found that a district’s decision to keep school open during inclement weather can actually be detrimental for students because “many kids will miss school regardless either because of transportation issues or parental discretion.”

“With slack time in the schedule, the time lost to closure can be regained,” Goodman wrote. “Student absences, however, force teachers to expend time getting students on the same page as their classmates.”

Goodman, a former Massachusetts public school teacher who now teaches empirical methods and the economics of education, analyzed Massachusetts student attendance data in grades 3 through 10 over the course of eight years for the study. Like Rhode Island, the Massachusetts school year lasts 180 days.

The study found that student achievement is strongly correlated with days missed – when school is open, but students are absent – but that student performance does not decrease when an entire school is closed. Put simply, closing school altogether tends to even the playing field while keeping school open could force some students to fall behind if they are unable to attend.

For years, experts have been attempting to link absenteeism with student performance, but until recently, many schools districts only tracked average daily attendance in a given school rather than following individual student attendance. The flaw with that method is that students with a large number of absences that span sporadically throughout the year are often overlooked when it comes to analyzing data.

In Rhode Island, 17% of all Rhode Island students were labeled chronically absent – the term for students who miss 10% of the 180-day school year– in the 2011-12 school year and 29 schools from nine communities saw at least 30% of their students absent at least 18 days, according data provided by the Rhode Island Department of Education.

The national average for chronic absenteeism is 10%, according to a study released in 2012 by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Christina O’Reilly, a spokeswoman with the Providence Public School District, said the city always errs on the side of getting children home safely when it comes to making a decision about inclement weather.

“Before these decisions are made, we consult with PEMA, the National Weather Service, and local meteorologists; we look at graphs and charts of likely probabilities of snow in the key commute times, and discuss with the city their ability to get the roads cleared should accumulation start,” O’Reilly said.

There is one downside to school closures that isn’t mentioned in the Harvard study, according to Providence School Board Vice President Nicholas Hemond.

“We have many students in our district who, when school is closed, do not get to eat breakfast or lunch,” Hemond told “They eat at school.”

Hemond said Providence has become more “trigger happy” when it comes to closing school since a Dec. 2007 storm that forced students across the city to remain on school busses for several hours. Still, he said he supports the city taking a cautious approach.

“If we can get students to school safely and timely, then we should cancel,” Hemond said.

Dan McGowan ( ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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