Longfellow Elementary School is pictured Jan. 2 on a snowy day in Kansas City before students returned from winter break. When bad weather forces school buildings to close, Kansas City Public Schools will teach students remotely if the district has enough notice to prepare.
Longfellow Elementary School is pictured Jan. 2 on a snowy day in Kansas City before students returned from winter break. When bad weather forces school buildings to close, Kansas City Public Schools will teach students remotely if the district has enough notice to prepare. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

In Kansas and Missouri, state laws limit how much schools can rely on remote education. 

That means this winter, many Kansas City-area students have a good chance of experiencing a classic snow day, with no school work required, despite districts’ experience with teaching students at home earlier in the pandemic. 

A cap on remote learning hours in Kansas prompted several major local districts to say they will cancel school entirely if students can’t travel safely. 

Meanwhile, several large area districts in Missouri are planning to take advantage of a statewide policy that allows districts to teach students remotely for several days during emergency situations such as severe weather or disease outbreaks. 

But districts may need to incorporate traditional snow days as well, and some are planning to do so even before they run out of virtual days. 

“W​​e know that there will still be regular snow days (in Kansas City Public Schools), because anyone who’s lived in Kansas City for any length of time knows that our weather events can be really unpredictable,” said Elle Moxley, a KCPS spokesperson. 

Kansas remote learning law is tied to funding

In Kansas, a student cannot receive remote education for more than 40 hours — about five to six school days — during the school year. 

The new policy, mandated by a 2021 state law, came in the wake of pandemic-related school closures and concerns that many students were lagging academically and losing connection with services provided by their school communities. 

In the Shawnee Mission School District in Kansas, spokesperson David Smith said it’s the district’s responsibility to hold in-person school whenever possible.

“When we put out our calendar at the beginning of the year, we make a commitment to parents: These are the days that we’re going to have your children,” he said. “And people depend on that.” 

But the district also has to consider whether children can safely get to and from school. 

“We desperately want to avoid a situation like I know some of my colleagues and other districts in other parts of the country have had where, for example, they’ve gotten kids to school and then couldn’t get them home,” Smith said. “You know, my nightmare scenario is a high school full of kids that have to spend the night.”

The district has several types of snow day scenarios depending on weather conditions, and none of them involves students learning virtually. 

“Snow days are still a thing because the legislature has kind of precluded our ability to use remote learning,” he said. 

If schools provide more than 40 hours of remote education for a student without a waiver from the local or state school board, funding for that student will decrease. 

Smith said Shawnee Mission is conserving its virtual education hours for an emergency such as a power outage, water main break or COVID outbreak rather than using them during inclement weather. 

Olathe Public Schools, another large school district in Kansas, is also not planning to offer remote learning as an alternative when school is closed for bad weather due to the limits on remote education, spokesperson Becky Grubaugh said in an email. Grubaugh wrote that “the district is safeguarding those hours in case of an emergency.”

The website for the Blue Valley School District also says there will be “no school” during snow days, and the Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools website says schools will be closed for snow days. 

Missouri districts plan to incorporate remote education during snow days

Missouri’s remote education plan was created by a state law and went into effect just prior to the pandemic. It allows districts to provide “alternative methods of instruction” during days when school buildings are closed due to weather, emergencies or contagious disease outbreaks. 

If schools get an instruction plan approved by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, districts can count 36 hours of remote learning — about five school days — toward the 1,044 hours they need for a complete school year. 

Compared to Kansas, large metro area districts in Missouri seem more inclined to use remote education. 

Moxley, the KCPS spokesperson, said district teachers have become more comfortable with remote learning due to their experience in 2020. 

“I definitely think we understand now that we can have this shift to a virtual learning snow day, and we can make it pretty seamless,” she said.

Moxley said Lincoln College Preparatory Academy already switched to virtual learning Tuesday, Jan. 4, when a pipe burst over winter break, meaning the building wasn’t ready for students to return. 

“It was just good to have that because otherwise, we would have lost a whole day of instruction at our college prep school, where really every day leading up to finals week is really, really important for revision and review and finishing the last bits of new material,” she said. 

Unlike Kansas’ policy, Missouri’s cap on remote education only applies to days when an entire district or school building goes remote. It does not apply to individual students who are in quarantine or isolation, according to detailed guidance DESE emailed to districts. 

Districts are also still allowed to provide remote education after they exceed the 36-hour cap, said DESE spokesperson Mallory McGowin. But any additional hours of virtual education won’t count toward the district’s quota for total hours of instruction and may need to be made up at the end of the school year. 

We still have the option of just having a good old-fashioned snow day if, say, an unexpected winter storm blows through.

Elle Moxley, KCPS

That’s a change from the temporary pandemic policy that allowed districts to spend months in remote or hybrid learning, but which ended in July. 

(Some districts in Missouri and Kansas build a few extra days into the school year to lessen the likelihood of having to make up snow days or other emergencies. Both states also have some virtual education options that predated the pandemic and are continuing regardless of other policies.)

Lee’s Summit, Blue Springs and Park Hill are among districts that have announced they will run through all five virtual education days in the case of inclement weather before reverting to no-school snow days. 

Liberty Public Schools and North Kansas City Public Schools have the reverse approach. School will be entirely canceled for bad weather the first few times. But if school is snowed out for too many days in a school year, the district will begin to use remote education days. 

In a statement that North Kansas City spokesperson Susan Hiland emailed to The Kansas City Beacon, the district said its new policy to begin with three traditional snow days is a response to parent and teacher feedback. “It’s hoped a snow day allows everyone the opportunity to rest, relax and recharge.”

KCPS plans to decide on a case-by-case basis how to handle snow days. 

“We still have the option of just having a good old-fashioned snow day if, say, an unexpected winter storm blows through,” Moxley said. “Kids can go out and go sledding and do all of the normal snow day things.”

If the district knows in advance that severe weather is coming, however, it will send home devices students need to access virtual education and hold what it calls a “virtual learning snow day.” The district is also continuing its work to help students who struggle to connect to the internet at home. 

Virtual education can help students stay on track academically, Moxley said. 

“We just think that this is another tool to keep kids connected with their schools, especially when we’re in these situations where we may have a weather event that lasts several days in a row.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.