Each year, students at Owsley County Schools miss nearly a month of school because of snow and ice.
The time away from class takes a real toll on student learning, says Jason Hall, an elementary school teacher in the rural Kentucky district.
“As educators, we always worry about summer dip,” Hall says, explaining how students tend to forget things over the long break. “With snow days in the past, we missed so much that students would come in and it would be almost like winter dip.”
Not anymore, though. Now, when weather makes it too dangerous for students to come to school, they attend virtually.
Elementary and middle school students log into the district’s learning management system from their home computers to complete designated snow-day lessons. Unlike day-to-day instruction, these lessons are tailored to each student, based on where they need to improve.
Students also have hard copies of lessons and assignments selected by the teacher. That way, if students don’t have access to a computer or the Internet at home, or their power is knocked out by a storm, they can still get their work done.
This year, high school students use virtual days to work on short-term courses, which run from December 1 through March 1. These teacher-designed courses cover subjects not typically offered at the school – abnormal psychology and genealogy are among those offered this year – and are worth one-quarter credit.
“The idea is, if they started as freshmen, they would have one full elective credit by the time they graduate,” explains Jennifer Hall, a teacher at Owsley County High School.
Students aren’t the only ones working during virtual snow days. Teachers are in near constant contact with students.
“I either send them personal Facebook messages, post and tag them in Facebook status updates, email them directly from the Blackboard course, and/or submit announcements via Blackboard for the entire course,” says Jessica Brewer, a math teacher at Owsley County High School. Brewer says she also comments on digital journal entries, calls and texts students, and checks email throughout the day.
While students like being able to select their short-term class, not all are thrilled about doing school work on a snow day.
“Even though it’s a snow day, it is a day that you can learn and won’t have to make up in the summer.” Jason Hall, teacher, Owsley County Schools
“We’re still working on that mindset. That even though it’s a snow day, it is a day that you can learn and won’t have to make up in the summer,” says Jason Hall, who recalls the school year going well into June when he was a student.
This approach has been particularly useful for the district’s lower-achieving students, Jason Hall says, noting that a group of students who were “notorious” for scoring the lowest on end-of-year exams performed better last year, in part because of personalized lessons assigned to middle school students during snow days.
“I just feel like part of that was because those snow days weren’t wasted days for them,” he says. “We were able to get a whole lot more learning in.”
Owsley County Schools piloted virtual snow days, referred to within the district as “innovative learning” or “nontraditional instruction” days, during the 2010-2011 school year after getting approval from the Kentucky Department of Education. The district is one of a handful in the state allowed up to 10 virtual days each year, per the department.
Virtual snow days are a reminder of how, with technology, learning opportunities aren’t limited by the four walls of a classroom. That’s why schools in states such as New Jersey, which is about to be slammed with up to two feet of snow, are asking state legislators to allow virtual days to count toward the number of school days required by the state.
“If weather and other factors would cooperate, our public school districts would never struggle to complete a 180-day schedule,” Lauren Schoen, superintendent of school for Mahwah Township Public Schools, and Erik Gundersen, superintendent of schools for Pascack Valley Regional High School District, wrote in a recent op-ed.
“In the real world, conditions arise that demand school calendar flexibility,” the New Jersey superintendents wrote.
School districts in New Jersey can petition the state for virtual days, which is what Pascack Valley did ahead of a major snowstorm last year, but currently there is no guarantee the state will count them as school days. A bill permitting virtual days is pending approval by the New Jersey Department of Education.
Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Ohio already have policies in place that give districts a set number of virtual days to use when schools close for weather, allowing them the flexibility to continue learning even when Mother Nature tries to interfere.