12/31/2010 08:34 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Religious Schools: 'Snow Days' and the Dual Curriculum

I'll admit to getting more than a vicarious thrill when the call comes from my children's school declaring a "snow day." I yearned for those cancellations as a student and today it means no carpooling for me. Granted, as a work-at-home mom, I wonder how I will get everything done and if I'll be guilty of parking my children in front of the TV at some desperate point in the day.

At the same time, I also sympathize with my son's Hebrew teacher who is trying to hone her second graders' vocabulary in a second language. Was she planning on teaching 10 new words at the start of this week since that is her routine? Will we be 10 words short or forced to learn 20 by week's end?

Last winter, a study released by University of Maryland analyst Dave Marcotte indicated that the loss of a few days of school can adversely affect academic performance. The study specifically examined snow day cancellations in addition to "unscheduled closings" in Maryland from 2002 to 2003. Marcotte concluded that two-thirds of the elementary schools that failed to make adequate progress (according to standards of "No Child Left Behind") would have avoided this predicament had they "been open during all scheduled school days." Since my own children are in a religious school, the study got me thinking about kids who have a religious, in addition to a secular, curriculum. Public schools, private schools and religious schools that teach enrichment classes and additional subjects would have further benchmarks to meet which snow days and unscheduled closings could further impede.

As a child, I would wake up at 5 on mornings when my mother, a high school principal, paced back and forth deliberating "Should we close or not?" It was exciting for me: Would we receive a call from my own school or was only my mom's going to cancel? She listened to 880 AM weather and traffic conditions and spoke with the dean of her school each time to help aid the thorough decision.

Although I no longer live in her house, she still has to make those determinations today as Principal of Ezra Academy in Queens, a Jewish high school where she has worked for the past 26 years. When several New York Jewish day schools closed last Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday (many Jewish day schools do not have the same winter break as other schools) due to winter's first "blizzard" and subsequent Blizzard-gate (limited plowing that Bloomberg was unable to explain to NYC residents' satisfaction), I asked her what she thought:

"We're always feeling rushed -- not enough time, so much to teach -- but honestly, I look forward to snow days at least as much as the kids, maybe more. And we, the teachers and administration, always find a way to ensure that everything gets taught."

But some administrators are feeling more anxious.

"If there are too many snow days in public schools, spring break vacation days are taken away," a teacher and administrator in a religious high school informed me. "We have days off due to observances -- how can we even pretend to be educating our kids properly? And try teaching AP courses under those circumstances..."

I asked her what she does to make up for any missed learning on missed days of school: "I try to assign independent projects and I use our school wiki to extend class discussion so it can take place online, outside the classroom."

My mother, whose school in Queens was closed last Monday and Tuesday but reopened Wednesday, explained "There's no easy answer to this argument and really, you can't win. When school is open, you'll have teachers and students who legitimately can't make it in from where they live."

I agree that missed days of school are less than ideal for keeping the lessons fresh in students' minds. It concerns me that research indicates each 4-5 days subtracted from the school year due to snow had a similar effect to overcrowding the classroom with 3-4 kids. Students in Europe and Asia go to school for approximately 200 to 220 days of the year as compared to the average U.S. number of 180 -- and that's without snow days.

My children's principal informed me that adding days in June to the school calendar would only happen in an "extreme situation" (i.e. numerous upcoming "snow days" this school year). He said that for most of the schools that were forced to cancel, it is still early enough in the school year to fit in all learning objectives over the next six months. Furthermore, when dealing with snow days, schools have to consider the way that they factor in special programs and assemblies to minimize interruptions, being more mindful when scheduling these activities.

Despite questions that linger about academic performance and how canceled days and fewer hours impact it, teachers, parents, students, analysts and I agree on one key point: Safety is paramount.

If the roads are icy, the responsible thing is to keep the kids -- and yourself -- at home!