E-learning days free districts from the -hassle of scheduling makeup school days, says Tricia Kennedy, Executive Director of eCLASS Transformation for Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools.

Oct 23 2019

Remote Tech Allows for Virtual School on Snow Days

School districts employ virtual learning to avoid the chaos of makeup inclement weather days.

When Tropical Storm Irma tore through Georgia on Sept. 11, 2017, Gwinnett County Public Schools shut down for three days. 

So when the following January’s wintry weather rolled around, rather than cancel school again — and have additional instructional time to make up — the district simply a virtual school on snow days.

“Our students are so used to being on technology, whether they’re at school or at home,” says Tricia Kennedy, executive director of eCLASS Transformation at GCPS. 

Digital Learning Days, as the district calls them, “give us flexibility in ensuring that we can still have learning happening without having to rearrange everyone’s schedule to make up days.”

A growing number of districts have reached the same conclusion. 

Remote learning days in lieu of school cancellations are a natural progression for districts that already use one-to-one devices and learning management systems in the classroom

They also make it easier for districts to meet state-required minimum days of instruction.

Despite their benefits, remote learning can pose logistical challenges for both users and IT staff: confusion about where and when to find assignments or reach teachers with questions; how to provide access for students who lack devices or home internet access; and network issues, such as traffic spikes or login difficulties.

“You don’t know what you don’t know until you get to a day where you’re stressing the full system,” says Kennedy.

As they experiment with and refine remote learning, many districts are developing innovative solutions to these challenges.

Offering e-learning days is a simpler alternative to traditional make-up days, says David Hua, associate professor of computer technology at Ball State University, who led a 2016 study on virtual learning strategies for lost instructional time.

“I believe it will become more ­commonplace, especially as our young society becomes more enmeshed in ­finding answers online,” Hua says. “It’s natural for students.”

How K–12 Schools Can Go to Scale for Remote Learning

GCPS had a sneak peek at the logistics behind remote school days because two of its schools periodically used them. But the district — the largest in the state and 13th largest in the nation, with 180,000 students — learned that such an initiative is complicated by scale.

The first challenge involved traffic slowdowns on both the learning management and professional development systems

District leaders learned to communicate with vendors as soon as possible when they knew they were taking a District Learning Day so they could add server capacity and increase system monitoring to uncover red flags more quickly, says Kennedy.

“We’ve established protocols with our providers, so we know exactly what we need to do and what they need to do to be prepared,” she says.

On District Learning Days, IT workers can check out hotspots that allow them to remotely monitor and access the school’s network, even if they lose power or internet service at home.

Because many GCPS students bring their own devices to school, officials knew some didn’t have access to computers and Wi-Fi for home-based assignments

For those who didn’t — either because they lacked a device or internet connection, or their power was out — teachers created alternative assignments, which students could complete during or after the Digital Learning Days.

When several GCPS principals recently met to share their best practices and lessons learned, Kennedy says, it became clear that the district has matured in its use of remote instruction.

“There was a sense of, ‘We’ve got this. Our teachers are ready, our parents are ready,’” she says.

MORE ON EDTECH: Discover cyberhygiene practices for secure remote learning. 

The Initial ‘Bumps and Bruises’ of a Remote Learning Program

Neighboring Forsyth County got a taste of remote school days during Georgia’s 2014 “snowmageddon” ice storm

The storm dumped heavy snowfall and record levels of ice, leading to major interruptions of roadways, prompting school closures and bringing the area to a virtual halt for almost a week.

“People were abandoning their cars on the highway,” recalls Jason Naile, director of instructional technology and media at Forsyth County Schools.

Some teachers sent educational activities home via the district’s LMS to keep students sharp. But once the storm passed, officials began exploring how to implement such practices systematically, Naile says.

The majority of students in the district already had access to devices and the internet at home. With funding from the Forsyth County Education Foundation, the district provides Chromebooks and Kajeet SmartSpot hotspots to students who need them.

Another option for students who lack home internet access: the district’s Bring Your Own Technology Wi-Fi program, which grants students access to free Wi-Fi at public locations. Participating businesses identify themselves with stickers in their windows, and the district keeps a map of program locations.

Technology access, however, was just the beginning. “The first year, we had a lot of bumps and bruises,” recalls Mike Evans, chief technology and information officer for Forsyth County Schools.

Teachers weren’t clear on how much work to assign, and families were confused about how and when to find assignments from different teachers. The second year was better, Evans says, and “by year three and four, we sat back and waited for issues to arise. It was smooth.”

Faculty spent more time preparing for remote days. The content has also improved, says Naile. The district posts sample assignments that teachers can incorporate in their classes or use as templates to build their own lesson plans.

After each remote school day, the ­district surveys teachers about student performance and associated challenges, such as how many students completed their work, whether they ran into obstacles and if they need additional training. “It gives teachers a chance to reflect on what they need and lets us reflect on what we as a district need to do,” Naile says.

READ MORE: Learn how to best prepare and support educators teaching from home.

Schools Extend Remote Learning After Initial Success

Rather than add makeup days to the calendar, Maine School Administrative District 28 and Five Town Community School District, which cover the Maine towns of Camden and Rockport, explored alternative ideas.

One year, they extended the school day by an hour for two weeks — an experiment few would opt to repeat. “Everyone was very tired after the two weeks of school,” says Colin Sutch, IT director for the districts.

In summer 2018, the district brought together a committee of teachers from each grade to study remote learning days and initiated a pilot program the following winter. “People were excited about it,” Sutch says.

The district notified parents of their plans to hold an online learning day, slated for the first snow day after Dec. 1, explains Debra McIntyre, assistant superintendent at MSAD 28 and Five Town CSD. That day came on Feb. 13.

Source: ICSD

Students in the upper elementary grades easily adapted to online learning days because they are accustomed to working online

They regularly use tablets as well as Google Classroom and the Schoology LMS, and they have access to Kajeet SmartSpots. Some teachers even held “class” by hosting Google Chats. 

They posed questions and had students respond within a certain time frame, explains McIntyre.

For the lower elementary grades, teachers assign students work to complete at home, but the projects are not technology driven because there is not a one-to-one program in those grades

There aren’t enough district-issued devices for every student in the lower elementary grades to take home.

One successful outcome of the initiative, Sutch says, is that it has given students more avenues to collaborate with their peers

Even students who felt uncomfortable speaking up in class were contributing to online discussions

“It may have taken longer to set up than a regular classroom session, but in some ways, it was richer,” he says.

DISCOVER: Find the online learning platform that works best for your school.

Photography by Leah Overstreet

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