Dec 18 2020

How Virtual Education Supports Seamless Learning Opportunities

Digital learning days help students stay connected, rain or shine.

When Tropical Storm Zeta rolled through Georgia in October 2020, many residents woke to power outages, downed trees and other signs of storm damage. Despite the disruption — and the storm — Gwinnett County Public Schools stayed in session, with the district leveraging its remote learning capability to continue instruction.

Looking ahead, school system officials in Gwinnett say virtual learning could make the old-fashioned snow day obsolete. “Having the option of holding a digital learning day certainly does provide the district with some flexibility,” says Sloan Roach, executive director of communication and media relations for the district. Technology provides schools with the opportunity to make these decisions quicker and navigate challenges more efficiently.

Gwinnett County is not alone. Across the nation, speculation is circulating in K–12 circles that school snow days may be coming to an end. The pandemic has demonstrated that it’s possible to keep kids learning remotely no matter the weather. Some say this opens up the possibility of simply moving instruction online instead of closing schools for weather events. Whichever route the district takes, technology helps administrators make that determination much easier.

Closing the Digital Divide

USA Today reports on two rural school districts that were looking to leverage virtual snow days even before the pandemic hit. Both Bermudian Springs School District in south-central Pennsylvania and Bancroft-Rosalie Public Schools in northeast Nebraska have considered this route.

Both districts had worked to close the digital divide, equipping students with devices and ensuring some level of connectivity to support remote learning. In turn, that remote learning capability has provided alternatives to the conventional snow day.

In the case of Bermudian Springs, Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss applied for the district to be allowed to use Pennsylvania’s Flexible Instructional Day program, under which a school can conduct classes outside school grounds for up to five of its 180 teaching days. The first flex day took place Feb. 14, 2020, to make up for a January snow day.

The New York Times, meanwhile, reports that New York City schools have already canceled all snow days this year, with school officials looking to online learning as a means to continue classes on inclement weather days. Schools nationwide are following a similar path.

“We said, ‘Wow, this could really be a solution for us for snow days in the future,’” Robb Malay, a school superintendent in southern New Hampshire, told the Times. He oversees seven districts where a new policy will replace snow days with virtual learning.

At R.C. Smith Christian Academy in Charlotte, N.C., the prospect of replacing snow days with virtual learning helps to ease a logistical burden.

“Snow days just got easier to plan,” said Head Mistress Renata Clyburn. If the roads are too icy or sidewalks too slick, “we will continue teaching and learning as usual for our remote classes.”

At Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania, Superintendent Robert Copeland wrote in a letter to parents that this year would see changes to the usual snow day policies.

Given the constraints of COVID-19, “We definitely don’t want to take the chance that children might be stranded in enclosed buses together for any extended period of time,” Copeland noted. With this in mind, “We will be canceling in-person instruction on days when there is a forecast of snow or ice that could impact safe travel.”

On these virtual snow day days, students will engage in remote instruction based on the instructional model in place at the time. “We will give families as much notice as possible,” he wrote, “if we anticipate calling for a weather-related remote instructional day and remind students to bring their devices home.”

In Missouri’s Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, officials note on the district’s website that engaging in virtual learning in place of snow days will enable them to prevent the school year from running into summer. It will also help ensure a variety of school construction projects stay on schedule.

Virtual Learning Days: New Opportunities

Some see virtual snow days as a chance to spark creativity.

“It wasn’t that long ago that we were looking for opportunities to get kids away from their devices and out in the great outdoors,” says Rebecca Mannis, a learning specialist at Ivy Prep Learning Center in New York City.

“What better way to bring Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day to life than having kids bundle up, take some photos and then share images of their favorite place to create snow angels?” she says. “With a bit of planning, teachers can plan now for ways that kids can make use of the snowy experience as a learning moment that can imprint for a lifetime.”

Others see virtual snow days as a means of instilling academic continuity. It’s about “keeping the flow of instruction moving and keeping consistent learning experiences among grade levels,” says Melissa Hirsch, assistant superintendent at Northbrook/Glenview School District 30 in the Chicago area.

Digital tools help make this possible. “Throughout this pandemic, resources such as Google and Zoom have evolved with features such as breakout rooms and hangouts,” Hirsch says. “Students can still come together to communicate and collaborate around learning. They can problem-solve, debate and discuss multiple learning topics. They can continue to create and then share their ideas.”

Now that districts have seen that remote learning is practical, some say it’s unlikely that they will ever return to weather-related shutdowns. “It would be a huge mistake if we tried to just go back to what we were doing before,” Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union in Massachusetts, tells The New York Times.

MORE ON EDTECH: The state of educational technology in a post-pandemic world.

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