Will Virtual School Innovations Signal the End of the Snow Day?

School officials in Massachusetts are experimenting with tech-supported virtual school days during snow storms and flu season.

by Arianna Macneill, The Salem News, Mass. / September 1, 2015
Students in the Baymonte Makers Club are learning a program called Scratch, a product of MIT that simplifies programming into easy to use buttons. Facebook/Baymonte Christian School

(MCT) -- Someday soon when students get that automated message from the school district announcing a snow day, the news may not invoke the same jubilation it historically did. Instead of a day of frolicking in the snow, it may merely mean Beverly pupils will have to trudge through their schoolwork assignments at home.

Local school officials aren’t making those plans now, but they are piloting a “virtual school day” Tuesday for Beverly High students in grades 10-12. Principal Sean Gallagher said students will log on at home for their first day, complete their assignments and file them online.

In the past, the actual first day of school was reserved for freshmen students to transition to their new surroundings via an upperclassmen-run event. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education forced the district to change those plans, however, since it didn’t fit in with the state’s requirements for a 180-day school year, Gallagher said.

The virtual day will count toward the year’s overall school day count, he said.

The middle school was also required to change plans for incoming sixth-graders. New students were invited for an open house recently, according to School Committee President Paul Manzo.

To start off their virtual school day, students will be sent assignments — summer reading assignments and Naviance, or assessments that help students identify potential future careers — Monday night and will need to finish them by 11:59 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 1, Gallagher explained in a school-wide email.

Attendance will be gauged through completing the work and submitting it online, he said. “We’re really excited,” he said, adding that other districts, such as Burlington, have tried it, too.

Each of the students will have a district-provided laptop computer, according to Gallagher. For those who may not be able to use the Internet at home, the high school will be open and they can connect there.

The school will collect the data from the school day, see how it worked out and see what improvements can be made, said Gallagher. He added that school-free snow days aren’t going away anytime soon.

“I think that’s off in the future,” he said, adding that he and his staff will discuss their findings on the virtual day initiative with Superintendent Steven Hiersche and the School Committee.

From a superintendent’s standpoint, using the technology isn’t the largest issue in creating a virtual classroom, said Hiersche. The high school has had the take-home laptop initiative for the past five years; the key factor is creating a learning environment without classes being physically together, he said.

Snow days aren’t the only reason to close school, Hiersche said. A few years ago, the district dealt with a flu scare that, if cases had been identified, could have closed school for a week.

“We can continue to communicate with kids and have teachers be able to continue to deliver instruction during that period of time so we don’t get backed up during the school year,” Hiersche said. “I think it does have potential.”

Manzo said he’s also interested to see how it works, adding that Beverly is a “progressive district.”

“We’re not afraid to try new things,” he said, citing the seniors’ internship program that started this past year. “The virtual first day is another opportunity to try out something [new].”

©2015 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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