Bad Winter Weather in Illinois Rekindles Debate over Remote Learning

January’s polar vortex had educators dusting off plans for remote learning as a means to keep schools open during bad weather.

by Karen Berkowitz, Pioneer Press Newspapers / February 5, 2019
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(TNS) — Weather extremes like the recent polar vortex have prompted a few suburban school systems to rely on remote learning as an alternative to canceling class and giving students snow days.

The once-unthinkable option became viable when Illinois lawmakers granted school districts flexibility to decide what constitutes a school day in the Evidence-Based Funding for School Success Act, which was signed into law in 2017.

But some school officials in Lake County said they’re not ready to make that move just yet, even after subzero temperatures recently forced a few days of school cancellations.

As in past years, officials in places like Deerfield Public Schools District 109 have said they plan to make up the days lost to snowstorms and arctic temperatures last week by using contingency days set aside at the end of the school year.

Officials in other school districts, meanwhile, saw an opportunity to use remote learning days that would count as instructional days on the school calendar.

Area districts that turned to remote learning last week on days with subzero temperatures and wind chills at minus 50 degrees included Wilmette School District 39, Avoca School District 37, Glencoe School District 35 and Libertyville School District 70.

“Businesses have this model. You can work from home, so why not schools?” said Erik Youngman, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for District 70.

The Illinois School Code previously defined a school day as a minimum of five hours of school work under the direct supervision of teachers or non-teaching personnel or volunteers.

But the new funding law now allows school officials to define an instructional school day in whatever way they think is conducive to student growth and doesn’t require a minimum number of hours or minutes, Ralph Grimm, Illinois’ acting chief education officer, wrote in a Nov. 9 memo to school superintendents.

“An instructional day need not be confined to classroom-based instruction,” Grimm wrote. “Students learn in a variety of ways and settings. Districts may define student engagement and student learning in any number or combination of ways: Classroom instruction, online instruction, independent research projects, work-based learning and internships, to name a few.”

In Libertyville, District 70 students were required to participate in “Self-Directed Learning Day” assignments at home when school was closed for three days in late January, officials said.

If the assignments were not completed, students would be marked absent for those days.

Students also could choose from a variety of options, depending on their grade level. The work included labeling household items in another language, cooking something and blogging about it, practicing math or researching a topic, Youngman said.

They were given one week to turn in the assignment to the teacher.

“This gives us an opportunity to be creative,” Youngman said, adding the intention is not to have students sitting for hours in front of a computer.

Even after the polar vortex moved out of the Chicago area Jan. 31, four school districts in Deerfield, Lake Forest and Lake Bluff declared Feb. 1 as an emergency day either because school buses wouldn’t start or the vehicles would not operate properly after being exposed to extreme cold for a few days.

Instead of remote learning, Lake Bluff School District 65’s decision to use a fifth emergency day means students will need to report to school on June 10 to fulfill the state’s requirement for 176 instructional days.

At Deerfield Public Schools District 109, Superintendent Anthony McConnell said the district’s calendar has three days more than the minimum requirement.

As a result, the district will need to hold school on only two contingency days, if there is no further need to close school.

Meanwhile, Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of North Shore School District 112, which serves students in Highland Park, Highwood and Fort Sheridan, has heard from numerous residents asking whether the district could use holidays in February and March to make up for snow days.

“The short answer is no,” Lubelfeld said. “The calendar is published more than a year in advance. People make plans, such as college visits, vacations, medical visits and other situations involving work, home and family.”

Lubelfeld said calendars also are developed with input from the collective bargaining organizations that represent district employees.

“We respect those union agreements and we can’t just change calendars willy-nilly,” Lubelfeld said.

In nearby Township High School District 113, which includes Highland Park and Deerfield high schools, officials announced plans to hold school on Casimir Pulaski Day on March 4, the Monday following Easter on April 22 and the day after final exams on June 6 to make up its current deficit of three days.

One of the reasons for using the traditional approach is the result of concerns over the use of remote learning, particularly at the elementary school level, many school officials have said.

Jean Sophie, superintendent of District 65 in Lake Bluff, worries that some students would lack supervision because parents usually are working on snow days.

“We have a population of students we would be very concerned about, if they were trying to do (remote learning) in their home circumstances,” Sophie said. “We are very conscious of making sure that everyone has equal access to learning.”

She said her district hasn’t invested time in a remote learning initiative, in part, because the law may change and those days wouldn’t count anyway.

A bill pending in the Illinois legislature could revert the definition of a school day, if ultimately signed into law. The bill, HB247, is scheduled for a hearing Feb. 6 in the House Elementary and Secondary Education School Curriculum and Policies Committee.

McConnell said he’s open to exploring remote learning at District 109 but has concerns about its use with students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

“I got a couple of emails from parents who are teachers in Wilmette saying, ‘Hey look at what we are doing. Could we do this?,” McConnell said. “I am just not convinced how a kindergartener could have the same experience through a computer or a worksheet packet as what they would have in a kindergarten classroom with a teacher and peers.”

He added: “I feel like if we are going to count something as a day of school, it should probably be as rigorous as what an actual day of school would be.”

McConnell said the motivation for using remote learning days should be what’s good for kids, and not a desire to avoid having to make up a school day.

Mark Kodiak Ukena/Pioneer Press

Wayne Thomas Elementary School students in Highland Park headed back to school after the polar vortex canceled classes for a few days.

Wayne Thomas Elementary School students in Highland Park headed back to school after the polar vortex canceled classes for a few days. (Mark Kodiak Ukena/Pioneer Press)

At Mundelein High School District 120, officials are looking at how remote learning might be used, but they have no concrete plans yet to implement a program, said spokesman Ron Girard.

Kevin Ryan, assistant superintendent at District 112, said officials there started researching remote learning this year when the first snow day was called right after Thanksgiving.

Since then, District 112 has reached out to school districts with experience in remote learning and recently created a Modern Learning Committee.

The panel will guide decisions about integrating technology to allow learning to take place in various settings within and beyond the classroom.

Ryan said school districts using remote learning have stressed the need to make sure students and teachers have the necessary resources to access their assignments, and ensure teachers engage students in a meaningful way and provide timely feedback.

Educators, of course, always encourage students to learn on their own time and read as much as possible outside of the school day.

“We don’t really advise parents on what they should be doing on snow days,” Sophie said.

Family time also is important.

“Kids are very over-programmed these days and have millions of different activities,” Sophie said. “Sometimes, it’s nice to just to be home with your family and play board games, do crafts and all those different things.”

In general, school superintendents typically look at the decision to call a “weather day” as a no-win proposition because some parents and staff members will want school to be open and others will want school to be closed.

The approaches to the issue always will vary among different districts, Sophie said.

“We need to do what is best for the safety of our students and staff. That is not a choice,” Sophie said.

Chicago Tribune reporter Kate Thayer contributed.

©2019 Pioneer Press Newspapers (Suburban Chicago, Ill.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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