Cyber Snow Days
Another winter in the Northeast means another chance for winter weather to cause dangerous driving conditions and school closings. The first snow days of the season are exciting for students of all ages—my kids love to wear their pajamas inside out to ensure the early morning robo-call comes through to confirm that school is closed! The excitement and anticipation of a “free” day off is one of the joys of childhood.
Many parents and teachers also enjoy a snow day or two, and most school calendars are built with a few days to spare for just such an occasion. However, when a severe winter hits and schools are closed for prolonged periods of time, the joy wears off and the learning for students can fall way behind. School officials are subject to intense criticism when deciding to cancel school days and when and how to make up the time.
Is there another way? As students and homes become more connected, states, districts, and schools are increasingly exploring the idea of engaging students during at-home snow days in order to continue the flow of learning and limit the impact on the school calendar. Sometimes called cyber snow days, students are provided with assignments to complete at home as well as opportunities to connect online with teachers and classmates throughout the day.
Individual non-public schools have successfully set up cyber days and seen positive results. For example, students from Holy Rosary Regional Catholic School in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, participated in GoToMeeting classes last year during snow days. Principal Lisa Hoban says that parents are already asking her for details on the cyber days for this coming winter.
For larger public school districts, implementing cyber snow days may prove to be more challenging. However, the state of Pennsylvania is piloting a program and allowing districts to submit a plan to cover up to five “Flexible Instructional Days.” Approval from the state requires that districts provide detailed information demonstrating that “the educational experience must be a natural extension of the classroom learning and be equitable for all participants and populations.”
There are some obvious challenges to meeting that standard. Although the planned activities can be offline, anything that does require online access will require verified internet access and available devices for all students at home. In addition, the work and assignments will have to accommodate the needs and required services of special education students. Other questions come to mind about how to make cyber learning appropriate for our youngest learners, or how to ensure appropriate supervision and support at home on snow days. Most online and interactive experiences will also require reliable Internet services and electric power. What happens when the power goes out?
Leaders in Owsley County, Kentucky are also thinking creatively about how to provide school lunch on cyber snow days. When roads are clear later in the day, Superintendent Tim Bobrowski is exploring the idea of providing lunch and supper to students rather than breakfast and lunch.
So even if we consider all the implications for students and their families at home, what about the teachers? 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 at the 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?
In the event that a cyber snow day does occur, teachers may also need to be prepared to provide direct instruction online, be available for online, email, and/or phone support for students, and collect and review student work throughout the day. Do teachers have the technical support and training they need to be effective and support learning on a cyber snow day?
Teachers will also need to consider methods for assessing student learning during the cyber snow day as well as afterwards. How will teachers determine student engagement and mastery? How will they differentiate learning upon return to school for those that were either unable to participate or unsuccessful in demonstrating mastery on the given assignment? A shift to this kind of cyber learning, even if only for 5 flexible days, will require all teachers to be prepared in new ways to provide the benefit of continuing instruction even when physical travel to the school is prohibited.
Although not without its challenges, I am encouraged that innovative schools and districts are exploring the concept of cyber school days. Learning in the 21st century is not contained by the walls of the school building, and weather-related closing should not be a reason to cease learning. The districts that are piloting this concept are demonstrating qualities of problem-solving and perseverance that we strive for in educating our children. 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. I will be waiting for the first snow day this year to see how the pilot schools in Pennsylvania fare with their plans and hope that students will remain safe, enjoy some fun in the snow, and engage in appropriate learning as well!