Pennsylvania Wants Ed Tech to Put an End to Snow Days

Gov. Tom Wolf wants to sign a bill that uses the concept of flexible education to allow school districts to continue instruction remotely, using the Internet and portable devices, while students are out of school.

by Sarah M. Wojcik, The Morning Call / June 26, 2019

(TNS) The thrill and excitement of a snow day for Pennsylvanian children might be extinguished thanks to a bill that allows districts to continue instruction remotely while students are out of school.

The legislation, which passed through the state Senate and House with virtually no resistance, creates the concept of flexible instruction days for districts to use when school is closed for any number of reasons — from inclement weather to building issues.

These days, which could include online or offline instruction, or a combination of the two, would be counted toward a district’s required 180 days of instruction. Gov. Tom Wolf has indicated he’ll sign the bill into law.

Typically, school districts build five snow days into the school calendar. If the school district exceeds those five days, it has to make them up to meet the 180-day requirement.

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a York County Republican and the bill’s primary sponsor, said she was contacted by some of her local districts who participated in a three-year state Education Department pilot program exploring flexible instruction days.

“They found this to be a really helpful tool for them,” Phillips-Hill said. “And they wanted to see it continue.”

The program was extended through the 2018-19 school year and the Education Department worked with lawmakers to craft the bill.

The bill doesn’t compel districts to institute the flexible instruction days, which is a relief to some districts such as Bethlehem and Allentown. The program is “not meant to be an alternative form of instruction for students,” Phillips-Hill said, so the bill would only allow for five days of flexible instruction.

Joseph Roy, Bethlehem Area School District superintendent, said that until the district can ensure students at home would have access to more robust learning tools and curriculum, flexible instruction would not be feasible for the district’s roughly 14,000 students.

“I would not want to just send students home with some extra homework in anticipation of a snow day so that we could count it as a day of school,” Roy said. “That would shortchange our kids educationally.”

Lucretia Brown, Allentown assistant superintendent of equity and accountability, said the program is a great opportunity overall, but there are serious concerns for districts with a large number of low-income students.

“This wonderful bill, which we support and are cautiously excited about, has the potential to further impede educational equity by exacerbating the digital divide which many urban and rural districts struggle with,” Brown said.

If there’s a way for Allentown to ensure its more than 17,000 students would have access to instructional programming at home, Brown said the district would consider implementing flexible instructional days.

She hopes it could shed light on how a 1:1 device program for Allentown students would be beneficial. It could even open doors for community partnerships to ensure the city’s youth have internet access, Brown said.

The program calls for comparable options to be made available for students and teachers who do not have public broadcast or internet access due to lack of power, technology or connectivity.

Phillips-Hill said the bill’s architects see the program as a useful tool for districts — not something that’s necessarily a fit for every district. Exploring ways to help close the digital divide should go alongside programs like this one, according to Phillips-Hill.

“This is really just another option for schools if it meets their needs,” she said.

Joseph Kovalchik, superintendent at the Northampton Area School District, said he had mixed feelings about the bill. While it’s nice to have a way to cut down on a district’s need to extend school days into the summer, that should not be the goal. Quality instruction must be the priority, he said.

“I’m not sure the quality of overall work will take place on those flexible days, but I would be willing to discuss a plan with our staff and community that meets our expectations,” Kovalchik said.

He worries that lack of internet access or even just power outages on days with inclement weather could be obstacles for students’ ability to experience a day of solid instruction. There’s also the issues of the vocational students and special education students — not to mention contract language for educators.

Kovalchik said in-depth discussions and a solid plan would need to be in place before flexible days come to the district.

Harrisburg correspondent Ford Turner contributed to this story.

©2019 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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