They're the bane of school administrators and the hopeful dreams of students.

They mean waking early to scour weather reports and scout out road conditions. They mean days spent on the couch watching "The Price is Right" or outside sledding and building snow forts.

They mean scheduling challenges and lesson interruptions and, in some cases, delayed graduation ceremonies.

Snow days, at least in the Northeast, are as much a part of the educational experience as gym class and textbooks. But soon they might be a thing of the past, at least for some of the days off. It could occur as soon as the coming winter.

The Pennsylvania Legislature has passed a bill that would create flexible instructional days, a way to avoid the classroom time lost when winter weather whips through and leaves a blanket of white behind.

Flexible instructional days use nontraditional methods to provide instruction to students in their homes. While they can involve off-line instruction, the most common method is online lessons.

"School districts need the added flexibility of ensuring their students' continuity of education is not interrupted by the weather or any other unplanned school closure," explained Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a York Republican who sponsored the bill.

The bill, which is based on a three-year pilot program in a dozen districts that ended in 2018, was recently signed by Gov. Tom Wolf.

It will allow districts to apply to the state Department of Education to use up to five flexible instructional days per school year.

A plan and application must be submitted to the Department of Education by September 1 to opt into the new bill, which gives districts limited time to make a decision for this school year.

School districts in Montgomery County are taking their time to consider all parts of the law.

“We are studying the law and the requirements. At this time we do not plan on implementing virtual school days,” Souderton School District Superintendent Dr. Frank Gallagher said.

Other districts' officials said they have not had the time to fully consider implementation of the new bill, but they do support the idea of the bill.

The concept of flexible instruction days brings opportunity for schools to feel confident in calling off school to keep students and faculty safe, without delaying the learning process. 

“The intention of the new bill is wonderful. The hope is that we are not putting our employees, students and their families at risk due to weather and other conditions,” said Dr. Todd Bauer, North Penn School District assistant superintendent in Lansdale.

Methacton School District Superintendent Dr. David Zerbe said he hopes to gain feedback from teachers, students and parents about flexible instructional days, but he already sees the opportunity the bill provides.

“It (the bill) is certainly intriguing and certainly serves as an excellent opportunity for us to consider,” Zerbe said.

Since online lessons are the most common method, administrators realize that this may create an obstacle for some students. 

Both the Methacton and North Penn School Districts offer technology to their students, with their older students being able to take a device home with them. This applies to grades 6 to 12 for North Penn and grades 7 to 12 for Methacton.

Online lessons for flexible instructional days would work greatly for students who take home devices, but an issue would arise for the younger students.

“While we’re very proud of the access to technology that our students have, our students in the younger grades don’t take that technology home with them, which will be a significant barrier,” Bauer said. 

These school districts would need to consider offering take-home devices to younger students or explore possible methods of meeting flexible instructional day requirements without technology.

“We would likely have to put into place either a 1-to-1 device program at the lower levels or have some alternative means of meeting the requirements in a way other than technology,” Zerbe said.

“Moving forward we would look to work with our leadership team, administrators, teachers and families to ultimately determine what’s best for North Penn and then plan accordingly. At this point we’re at the initial phases of just discussing it at the district level,” Bauer said.

-- David Mekeel, Reading Eagle, and Lauren Earnshaw for MediaNews Group 

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