The small, wooden placard on the classroom door read, “I’m a teacher; let it snow,” and just about every kid in these parts makes a similar wish every winter. This year, it finally came true with the “historic” snow that fell the weekend of January 23. The result: schools closed up shop that Monday and some even on Tuesday. You could all but hear the children—and some teachers—cheering.
As blogger trispective put it: “… Why are snow days so much more thrilling than a planned school day off? And in thinking about it, it seems obvious that it’s the unexpected nature of the gift. It’s the surprise in it. It’s the feeling of rolling over after the alarm goes off without guilt. It’s the joy of thinking through what you would have to do (take a test, practice verb conjugations) and knowing that you are instead free for the day.”
But now this incomparable pleasure of childhood is on the chopping block in Pennsylvania and in at least eight other states, too. They’ve all signed on for what’s commonly known as e-learning days, cyber days, and/or tele-learning days. Here, Flexible Instruction Days (FIDs) have been an option for our 501 school districts since November, 2014, allowing at-home assignments to stand in for face-to-face class time on snow days.
First, however, 22 state objectives must be met in order to gain Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) approval, requiring weeks, even months, of planning to secure. For starters, a district must demonstrate that “the educational experience must be a natural extension of the classroom learning and be equitable for all participants and populations.” And while the FID can be offered online, offline, or a combination of the two, comparable options must be available for kids and teachers without the necessary tech or connectivity. Ditto if the power goes out.
Approvals typically cover a three-year period and allow for the implementation of up to five FID plans a school year. These, of course, may have been sitting around for months, even years, until needed, though. Meanwhile, a district must seek a PDE exception if exceeding five such days. Other challenges include:
- Teachers who are not that tech-savvy
- Ensuring appropriate supervision and support at home
- Accommodating/providing for the needs and services of special educations students
- The availability of home Internet access
- Connectivity; some areas still use DSL
- Children without a computer or tablet at home
- Ensuring all links to websites are still viable
- One computer in homes with multiple school-aged children
- Power outages
- Lessons planned well in advance unrelated to current instruction
- A district’s loss of state transportation dollars
- A district’s loss of federal dollars for free and reduced-cost lunches
As author Diane Rymer puts it, “Are teachers prepared to think creatively about activities and assignments that can be completed at home on any given snow day? These activities would have to be ready for students in all grades and at all academic levels, and they would have to continue the progress of learning in alignment with standards and curriculum. What support would teachers need to effectively plan for this option?”
Moreover, teachers must be available to provide ongoing online, email, text message, and/or phone support for students all day and then eventually assess the quality of the completed work. That also begs the question, what about those who teach such specials as art, music, and phys ed.? Do they post online assignments, too, or do they get the day off unlike their core subject colleagues?
As for students, instead of romping around outside shoveling, sledding, and building snowmen, are they glued to a screen and/or seat work for much of the day? And besides, how many hours of at-home assignments equal six hours or so of face-to-face instruction?
That’s not to say, however, that cyber days don’t have advantages. Indeed, they have traditional snow days beat when it comes to:
- No lost instruction time, no wasted time
- No make-up days or extending school well into June
- No boredom setting in
- Kids staying focused on learning instead of TV, movies, and video games
- Utilizing such effective classroom alternatives as video conferencing, podcasts, live lecturing, collaborative projects using Google Docs, and so on
- Scheduling flexibility
- Affording time for students to practice much-needed tech skills
Adds Evan Glazer, the principal at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia: “Students need exposure to self-directed activities and practice managing their time. That’s expected of them when they reach the workforce. With these mini experiences, it enables them to demonstrate their ability to be productive without someone looking over their shoulder.”
Moreover, says author and journalist Thomas M. Kostigen, “We live in a wired world. Kids already talk online, text, play video games, surf, and do things in more innovative, tech-savvy ways than those of us in older generations even know about. Why don’t we harness those virtual world skill sets to make up for the physical inadequacies and inconveniences the real world puts in front of us.”
So there’s that, too. Plus, better forecasting is right on the horizon. Called GOES-R satellite, it’s touted as “a game changer for forecasters. The primary instrument on the new GOES-R satellite, the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI), will collect three times more data and provide four times better resolution and more than five times faster coverage than current satellites. This means the satellite will scan Earth’s Western Hemisphere every five minutes and as often as every 30 seconds in areas where severe weather forms, as compared to approximately every 30 minutes with the current GOES satellites.”
In other words, no more waiting for the last-minute school closing announcements we all rely on to alert us now. With advanced inclement weather warnings, teachers could then create online assignments and/or paper packets that are actually relevant, further dispelling the need for traditional snow days.
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