Future of Learning

As winter approaches, virtual school replaces snow days in some districts

In the Owsley County School District in Kentucky, each winter there are more than 30 days when there’s too much snow to get students to school safely.

So the district, located in a rural area south of the Daniel Boone National Forest, pioneered virtual school in the winter several years ago, getting students to hang up sleds and log online for classes on snow days. Although many remote areas of the country lack access to high-speed Internet service, that is not a problem in this district. But some students do not have computers at home.

“The next problem is how do we get devices to the most needy kids,” said superintendent Tim Bobrowski. “We work in a very impoverished area — that’s a challenge.”

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More schools are considering the options for virtual school when teachers or students cannot get to school. A new pilot in Pennsylvania was approved by this year. A school district in Georgia recently approved plans to offer lessons online when there is too much snow to open school buildings.

A woman walks along a snow-covered street in the south Buffalo area on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, in Buffalo, N.Y. A new blast of lake-effect snow pounded Buffalo for a third day piling more misery on a city already buried by an epic, deadly snowfall that could leave some areas with nearly 8 feet of snow on the ground when it's all done. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

A woman walks along a snow-covered street in the south Buffalo area on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014, in Buffalo, N.Y. A new blast of lake-effect snow pounded Buffalo for a third day piling more misery on a city already buried by an epic, deadly snowfall that could leave some areas with nearly 8 feet of snow on the ground when it’s all done. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

The experiences of those who have already tried virtual school days show that it’s not as easy as it might seem to offer a meaningful education in this format. But some of the early adopters, such as Owsley County, didn’t let the uncertainty stop them. They saw each obstacle as a problem to solve, not an excuse to quit.

In New Jersey, state lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow virtual school days to count toward the mandatory 180-day school year. Right now, the law says that school days don’t count if the buildings are not open.

“It is an outdated law,” said superintendent Erik Gundersen of the Pascack Valley Regional High School District in northeast New Jersey.

That has encouraged his relatively wealthy district to try a pilot program. Fewer than 10 of the 2,000 students had no Internet access at home, so that wasn’t a problem. Also, the district has an 11-year-old program that gives students access to a school-owned computer that they can take home. Teachers have been using a variety of online learning programs so that students can work remotely on lessons. The teachers will soon move to one, unified system, which should help students because they won’t have to learn a new program for each teacher.

It was good to experiment first, Gundersen said, to give the district an informed perspective on what worked best.

“It’s one of the things we pride ourselves in, giving our teachers some freedom,” Gundersen said.

Gundersen said state officials see the value in this concept, and many are amenable to changing the law. Recently proposed legislation would allow the days to count.

In Kentucky’s Owsley County, schools this year will be allowed to have up to 10 days of at-home learning, which will count as regular schools days and not have to be made up in the summer.

Another regulation there has been a hurdle for the virtual snow days. The federal laws that provide money to give students meals don’t allow for home food delivery. Students must come to the school or to a community center to get breakfast and lunch – something that is common in summer, but not feasible on a snow day when the roads are dicey. Going without meals isn’t a good idea either, Bobrowski said, and nearly every child in the district qualifies for free or reduced price meals.

“When students here leave on Friday they are taking bags of food home from us to get them through on the weekend,” he said.

Ideally, Bobrowski would like to make those federal school nutrition dollars count toward meals that are delivered to students at home on a snow day. The district has requested a waiver from federal officials to allow that.

“There are a lot of days when by 10 a.m. the roads are good,” he said. “Let’s serve lunch and supper, versus breakfast and lunch.”

These problems need to be solved, but they are not halting progress on the snow day program, Bobrowski said. An improvement they plan to make next year is to create a mini-course that would take place during the month’s worth of snow days. This would be an extra class, such as an online course in art or computer science, for example. Preparing for these virtual classes requires extra teacher training.

“Selling that idea is sometimes tough, but I think most of our teachers like it,” Bobrowski said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about digital ed.

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