After losing six school days to winter storms, Millard Public Schools officials want students to put down the sled and pick up the laptop.
District officials are exploring turning snow days into learning days by making use of district laptops that students take home in sixth through 12th grades.
Superintendent Jim Sutfin declared Thursday an e-learning day and encouraged students to check into the district’s classroom management app, Google Classroom, to find their assignments.
The rash of weather cancellations has disrupted the continuity of teaching, Sutfin said.
During February, he said, students attended school only 14 days because of a combination of snow cancellations and parent-teacher conferences.
“You’re starting and you’re stopping, and starting again and stopping. So we’re not getting good continuity of instruction,” he said.
The e-learning days could be particularly useful for students in Advanced Placement classes, who, regardless of how many days are lost, must be prepared to take subject tests on prescribed dates in the spring, he said.
Scoring well on AP tests can mean not having to take courses in those subjects in college.
The e-learning days could also help if storms force additional cancellations yet this year, and district officials must convince state officials that the district has racked up enough instructional hours to meet state minimums, he said.
Sutfin said the district’s instructional hours logged to date are still “well above” state minimums, and officials are still aiming to end the school year May 31.
“We are in a spot where we may, at some point, speak to the state about honoring these days as instructional days,” he said. “But for right now, at this moment, we don’t feel like we need to do that.”
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The e-learning effort is less about regaining instructional hours and more about providing continuity, he said.
“We feel like with this ridiculous winter we’ve had, this is a better answer than just stopping altogether,” he said.
The e-learning effort in Millard is still in the exploratory stages in the district. Teachers are being encouraged to find ways to reach out to students and engage them electronically on snow days.
Over several years, Millard has been rolling out a one-to-one computer laptop initiative, which has opened the door to the snow day effort in the upper grades.
In lower grades, teachers are reaching out by other electronic means and the old-fashioned way with written notes home.
In some cases with younger students, teachers emailed parents with activities.
For instance, a third-grade teacher asked students to select from a list of snow day activities that included shoveling the sidewalk or driveway, writing a poem about snow, finding the perimeter of their home in feet and recording how long a cup of snow takes to melt.
Elementary students at one school were encouraged to sing their favorite song, turn on their favorite music and have a dance party or put on their own version of “America’s Got Talent.” Or for physical education, they could spend 30 minutes playing in the snow or create their own PE stations in the house and rotate through them.
At Millard North High School, 11th-grade students were encouraged to hop online and watch an ACT prep video to prepare for the April 2 state assessment.
While e-learning on snow days could keep young minds in learning mode, it is not necessarily available to children in all school districts.
It becomes problematic for children without an Internet connection, and for districts that don’t provide take-home computers for students.
Papillion-La Vista Community Schools, for example, does not provide take-home computers for all students.
Superintendent Andy Rikli estimates that 80 to 90 percent of homes in the metro area probably have some type of Internet connection, wireless or otherwise.
“But if you are one of those 10 percent of the households that don’t have access to that, that machine really doesn’t do a lot of good for you,” Rikli said.
Without Internet, a student could probably type a paper or work on a PowerPoint on a district-issued computer, but couldn’t interact online with students or teachers, he said.
“Unless you’re in one of the handful of communities across the country where they have wireless almost as a public utility, where it’s offered free of charge across the core of the city, I suspect you’re always going to have that handful of families who, for a variety of reasons whether it’s financial or otherwise, they just don’t have a wireless connection,” he said.
Rikli said another issue with e-learning to replace snow days is that districts could have a hard time convincing state authorities that students were getting a full day of instruction while at home.
A district could require a student to log in or sit for an exam remotely, he said.
“But then a question that I think the Department of Education would rightfully ask is ‘Can you truly show us that you had kids engaged in meaningful activities for six and a half hours in a given day?’ ”
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said that, to date, he has not heard from school districts looking for relief from state minimums because of the storms.
Most, he said, have enough time built in.
Public schools must provide 1,032 instructional hours in elementary grades and 1,080 hours in high school. Kindergarten must be in session for at least 400 hours.
However, state rules allow districts to seek relief from the State Board of Education in the event that epidemic sickness, severe storms or destruction of school buildings, for instance by a tornado, makes it impossible to meet requirements.
He said state officials might consider e-learning days if a district could truly demonstrate that kids were being instructed.
“The rule’s not really clear” on how to account for that time, he said.
It might require a change to the state’s accreditation rules, he said.