HALIFAX — It is "bizarre'' how often Nova Scotia schools are closed because of weather, and the number of days lost this year amounts to a crisis, an education expert said Tuesday.
Paul Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting in Halifax, said there has been an average of 12 lost days this school year in the province due to inclement weather, including closures at many boards Tuesday.
"This is unusual. In fact, I dare to say no one else does it. No one does it with the frequency we do it. It's bizarre,'' said Bennett, an education analyst who has written numerous books and reports. "This is without a doubt the most serious crisis of lost school days that this province has ever faced.''
In a statement Tuesday evening, Education Minister Karen Casey said the final decision to cancel school rests with individual boards, but added that the situation is "far from a crisis.''
"While it is always preferable for students to be in school, we cannot control the weather,'' said Casey. "Student safety is always the first priority.''
Education Minister Karen Casey addresses a news conference in Halifax on Dec. 5, 2016.
Bennett compared the frequency of weather-related school cancellations in Nova Scotia to other regions in Canada, such as Winnipeg, which in some years has not had a single snow day.
He said Nova Scotia school boards are too cautious.
"I'm looking out my window and I defy anyone who says it's dangerous out there. It's not dangerous. There's nothing to fear out there right now,'' said Bennett, who is also an adjunct professor at Saint Mary's University.
He said research shows that more than five lost days per school year is detrimental to student performance.
"I'm looking out my window and I defy anyone who says it's dangerous out there. It's not dangerous.”
— Paul Bennett
"We have evidence from Massachusetts that it affects math scores significantly,'' said Bennett, citing a report from Harvard public policy professor Joshua Goodman.
He said Goodman's research was based on up to five lost days, and the professor was shocked to hear from Bennett that Nova Scotia schools regularly meet or exceed that number.
"Nobody understands how extensive it is here,'' said Bennett.
Schools closed again Tuesday
A number of schools across Nova Scotia were closed Tuesday, raising eyebrows from some parents who felt the weather was not severe enough to cancel class.
"Snow day school cancellations getting ridiculous. Do we live in Canada or not?!'' said person tweeting under the name Sean McKeane.
The Halifax Regional School Board, which has closed its schools 9.5 days this year, including Tuesday, said the decision to cancel classes is done in consultation with many, including a meteorologist and a bus company.
"Do we live in Canada or not?!''
— Twitter user Sean McKeane
"The decision is never made lightly,'' said board spokesman Doug Hadley in an email. "The decision to close schools in the Halifax Regional School Board (Tuesday) was based on the weather and road condition information gathered beginning at 4:30 a.m.''
In her statement, Casey noted that Nova Scotia has five days built into the school calendar for weather-related cancellations.
"There has not been an instance when the school year has been extended due to missed days for weather since the five days were added to the school year in the 1970s,'' she said.
But Bennett said that is somewhat misleading, because at the time, Nova Scotia had fewer school days than other provinces.
Bennett said one possible reason that Nova Scotia schools close more than others is the familial culture in the province, and the lack of pushback against kids staying home.
A pedestrian walks down Brunswick Street near Citadel Hill in Halifax as a major winter storm blasts the Maritimes on Feb. 13, 2017.
Another is the threat of litigation. He said lawyers here likely "err on the side of caution'' and warn boards about potential liability lawsuits stemming from car accidents or the like.
He said there are also many public sector workers in Nova Scotia, and governments are typically more receptive than other employers when it comes to accommodating parents who need to stay home with children on snow days.
Bennett said Nova Scotia should follow the lead of some school boards in snowy U.S. states, where lost days are turned into e-learning days, with students attending class online. He said some states even have limits on the number of days lost.
He said the province could also consider replacing teachers' professional development days with storm makeup days.
Bennett is working on a report on how snow days affect businesses and the workforce in Nova Scotia, which is expected by next winter.