(TNS) – ANDERSON – As Mary Kate Short, 9, did her school work at the computer on the desk in the second-floor study of Debbie Sebastian’s house, her brother Matthew Short, 6, sat on his grandmother’s lap as he worked on a packet of Johnny Appleseed math worksheets.
“We have to do one activity for each thing. This is a lot of stuff about Sept. 11,” said Mary Kate, a fourth-grader at Eastside Elementary School.
The children were engaged in their assigned school work last Wednesday during a scheduled Anderson Community Schools eLearning day. It is believed to be the first eLearning day taken this year by a school district serving students in Madison County or surrounding school districts.
Put in place a couple of years ago as an alternative to makeup days for weather-related closures, schools and districts also are using the eLearning days for other purposes, such as professional development or schoolwide illness.
The eLearning days help schools meet their various needs while adhering to the requirements of their teacher contracts and the state’s legal requirement of 180 instructional days.
Because of the 1:1, or One to One, technology initiatives in most school districts, students now have access to electronics, such as iPads and Chromebooks, on which they can complete their assignments even though they never leave home. For those who do not have internet access at home, the school buildings may be open, and assignments usually aren’t due until the following week.
However, Matthew completed his homework the old-fashioned way with pencil and paper.
“We’re counting to 100,” the Eastside Elementary School first-grader said. “We’re doing the cutting and gluing later.”
Sebastian, who typically watches her grandchildren while their parents work, said snow days typically were free days for which she had to find things to keep the children busy. Though there still is a lot of free time, she said, the eLearning day is a little more structured for the children, who arrive about 7:30 a.m.
Mary Kate said she likes the variety, being able to work a little before doing a fun activity.
“We can do stuff like we’re making enchiladas today and get to play outside,” she said.
Though the eLearning days solve some problems for schools and districts, they don’t do much for one ongoing problem faced by families: day care for the younger children of working parents.
“I wonder and kind of worry about children who don’t have grandparents here in town for working parents,” Sebastian said.
ACS Assistant Superintendent Ryan Glaze said the district has scheduled four eLearning days this school year, including two for professional development. The district used one last school year as a makeup day for a snow day.
“The state went ahead and allowed us to use more this year,” he said. “The state will no longer allow us to take half-days for professional development. This is just an opportunity for us to make sure our kids have their guaranteed 180 days.”
In addition, Glaze said, the eLearning day maintains the continuity of learning and instruction, with students doing the same lessons they would have done had they been required to attend the bricks-and-mortar school that day.
“It is a day of learning,” he stressed.
Though he concedes child care remains a problem, Glaze said it’s probably easier for parents to enlist someone for a full eLearning day than for half a school day.
As more than 72 percent of the students are eligible for free lunch, an indicator of poverty, Glaze said it’s reasonable to be concerned about internet access when students are home. However, in an internal district poll of about 1,000 students, officials learned more than 90 percent had access to WIFI and/or a device at home.
“More people had access than what I would have thought,” he said.
Though we live in a digital age where classes can be taken full-time at home, Glaze cautions that eLearning days are a temporary solution for limited situations because of the varied educational needs of students.
“Research will tell us over and over again that technology is just a tool. We still need teaching. And we still need relationships with teachers,” he said. “The state gives us a lot of flexibility on how we use them. I would not want to use them for just any situation.”
In January, Liberty Christian School used an eLearning day at its high school where more than 20 percent of students and staff had come down with the flu.
“It was really, really effective. We got great feedback from the students,” said the school’s Superintendent Jay McCurry. “We told the students you need to check in with your teacher by 9 o’clock that morning either by email or Google Classroom.”
Had the school faced such an emergency in the past, McCurry said, a makeup day or Saturday session would have had to be tacked on toward the end of the school year. But with eLearning, that wasn’t necessary.
Because they were high school students and able to take care of themselves, for the most part, child care was not a problem, McCurry said.
“It’s a fantastic tool, really. I’m thankful for the state to allow this as another option. We hope not to have to use it, but we’re thankful that it’s there,” he said.
The Indiana Department of Education established the Flex program in 2011 and the Virtual Option for Inclement Weather in 2014. Those programs were combined starting in the 2017-18 school year.
According to the IDOE website, eLearning Days may be used on a day when school is canceled, as a planned day or as a makeup day.
School districts do not have an automatic ability to tap into eLearning days but must apply to and be approved by the IDOE.
©2018 The Herald Bulletin (Anderson, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.