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Missing In Action: School Storm Days, Student Absenteeism, and the Workplace, The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), June 2019

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Abstract

An education policy research paper addressing the high incidence of school day cancellations in Nova Scotia and the Maritimes and its impact upon student absenteeism and productivity in the workplace. Researched and written by Paul W. Bennett and published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS). The report concludes with a set of policy reform recommendations.
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We describe characteristics of unplanned school closures (USCs) in the United States over two consecutive academic years during a non-pandemic period to provide context for implementation of school closures during a pandemic. From August 1, 2011 through June 30, 2013, daily systematic internet searches were conducted for publicly announced USCs lasting ≥1 day. The reason for closure and the closure dates were recorded. Information on school characteristics was obtained from the National Center for Education Statistics. During the two-year study period, 20,723 USCs were identified affecting 27,066,426 students. Common causes of closure included weather (79%), natural disasters (14%), and problems with school buildings or utilities (4%). Only 771 (4%) USCs lasted ≥4 school days. Illness was the cause of 212 (1%) USCs; of these, 126 (59%) were related to respiratory illnesses and showed seasonal variation with peaks in February 2012 and January 2013. USCs are common events resulting in missed school days for millions of students. Illness causes few USCs compared with weather and natural disasters. Few communities have experience with prolonged closures for illness.
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School days lost are gone forever. Missing a major chunk of the school year because of storm day closures can wreak havoc on students, eroding valuable class time, breaking continuity, disrupting tests and examinations, and sewing seeds of division between unionized teachers excused from duty and support staff left behind in empty schools. That is why the vast majority of Canadian school boards seek to preserve teaching time and resist the temptation to cancel school and give kids "the day off" at the first sign of inclement weather. Yet in Atlantic Canada it is different. Storm day closures are a regular occurrence and the rather unique phenomenon of "throw-away" school days is now a deeply ingrained tradition. Student safety on the roads, we are told, always trumps other factors in the Atlantic region. Closing schools is treated as a local matter best left to the school boards and rarely raised a serious matter warranting provincial intervention. In spite of record numbers of school day cancellations in 2008-09, a Nova Scotia report on School Storm Days gave the local boards "good grades." Repeatedly cancelling school has a disruptive effect upon students, families, and teachers. A careful analysis of the impact of "Throw-away Days" in Nova Scotia and neighbouring Atlantic provinces demonstrates that the high incidence of such disruptions can exact "collateral damage" on students as well as the public school system. The number and frequency of school closures in Nova Scotia, particularly during the 2008-09 school year, had an impact on student learning, especially in high schools already beset by chronic student attendance problems.
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The good fortune of bountiful natural resources is not enough to ensure rising incomes for Canadians in the long term. Growing labour productivity is the most important determinant of future economic welfare and on that measure, Canada is falling behind its major trading partners. Increasing labour productivity does not mean workers working harder for less money, a common canard. It means more investment in one of three factors: 1) human capital (education or other learning); 2) physical capital (plants or other infrastructure); or 3) technology. Just as an individual’s income is in the long-run dependent on how productive he or she is, so too is that of the nation as a whole. If Canada fails to improve its productivity, the incomes of both individual Canadians and the nation as a whole will fall behind those of other developed countries.
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In the economics of education, no task has been more important or more difficult than identifying the relationship between school inputs and student performance. The literature on this topic has reached little resolution, largely owing to the endogeneity of school resources. In this paper I examine the effect of a vital but little studied component of the education production function: instructional time. To identify the impact of schooling on test scores I make use of the fact that variation in winter weather made non-trivial differences in the number of school days students received prior to taking the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) exams. I find evidence that students who took exams in years with heavy snowfall performed significantly worse than their peers in the same school who took MSPAP exams in other years. I also find that performance in a subject with relatively inflexible curricula (mathematics) and students in earlier grades were most affected by snow. Both of these findings are consistent with the interpretation that education inputs in the form of instructional days improve students’ test scores.
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This study concludes that (i) stoppages can be shown to have a strong negative impact on student learning outcomes in Grade 6; the overall impact of stoppages on Grade 3 pupils appears to be much smaller, perhaps zero, although there is a noticeable, negative effect on achievement in mathematics; and, work stoppages have much greater adverse effects on students in both Grade 3 and Grade 6 in schools where more students come from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Article
Do students perform better on statewide assessments in years in which they have more school days to prepare? We explore this question using data on math and reading assessments taken by students in the 3rd, 5th and 8th grades since 1994 in Maryland. Our identification strategy is rooted in the fact that tests are administered on the same day(s) statewide in late winter or early spring, and any unscheduled closings due to snow reduce instruction time, and are not made up until after the exams are over. We estimate that in academic years with an average number of unscheduled closures (5), the number of 3rd graders performing satisfactorily on state reading and math assessments within a school is nearly 3 percent lower than in years with no school closings. The impacts of closure are smaller for students in 5th and 8th grade. Combining our estimates with actual patterns of unscheduled closings in the last 3 years, we find that more than half of schools failing to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) in 3rd grade math or reading, required under No Child Left Behind, would have met AYP if schools had been open on all scheduled days.
The True Picture of Workplace Absenteeism
  • Paula Allen
  • Luc Bourgeois
Allen, Paula, and Luc Bourgeois. 2015. "The True Picture of Workplace Absenteeism." Morneau Shepell research report.