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E-Learning Days Become Snow Day Alternative

One-on-one laptop computers, broadband networking and advance planning have allowed the spread of e-learning programs in more school districts across the country, rendering the snow day obsolete.

For students and teachers alike, one of the joys of living in snow country is to wake up in the morning to a news alert that school is closed for a snow day. But in an increasing number of states, e-learning days have become the alternative to snow days — no doubt to the chagrin of those who prefer sledding.

E-learning days allow students to complete online assignments from home, typically on school-issued laptops. These make good sense on lots of levels, especially as climate change renders polar vortices and snow cyclones the new normal, and mild weather states such as South Carolina are now having snow days.

Most states pad their schools’ number of required instructional days with supplemental days to account for temporary school closures. However, when schools exceed those extra days they must schedule makeup days — which are usually tacked on at the end of the school year and are often poorly attended.

Thanks to the growing number of schools now issuing take-home laptops to their students, e-learning days have become possible. And in the states that allow them, they’re proving to be popular.

Illinois and Indiana (which has a good e-learning day toolkit and resources for schools) have been at the forefront of the trend for several years. And Colorado now grants allowances for districts that want to go the e-learning day route.

It takes some real preparation for schools to successfully implement e-learning days district-wide. Due to a challenging list of requirements, most of the districts using e-learning days are currently smaller, non-urban school systems where the implementation of such programs is more feasible. The requirements include:

  • Student Laptops. Schools best prepared for e-learning days are those where students have already been issued laptops (Chromebooks are becoming the norm) and are accustomed to doing online assignments.
  • Home Internet Access. Though it’s possible to download assignments on laptops ahead of time, the unexpected timing of inclement weather makes it difficult to be that prepared. So it’s important that schools are assured their students have home Internet access. And if they don’t, to offer work-around solutions, like school-issued Internet hot spot devices, or at the least, a list of community locations with free Wi-Fi.
  • Learning Management System (LMS). For the ease of both students and teachers, schools should have an LMS where students already access their teachers’ assignments on a regular basis and one where the students are likewise comfortable submitting their work.
  • Clearly Defined Expectations. Both students and teachers need to be clear on what’s expected of them on e-learning days. For teachers, they must ensure they’ve uploaded to the LMS the necessary assignments for all of their classes and students. And there should be an agreed upon time (in Indiana it’s 9 a.m.) for when the assignments will be ready for the kids to access. Students need to understand the assignments are required, not optional. And like teaching an online class, teachers may also need to be online for a defined part of the day to interact with students and answer their questions.
  • Practice. Many schools implementing e-learning days have first done trial runs, perhaps on a teacher planning day when students wouldn’t otherwise be in school. This gives both teachers and students the opportunity to test out the process and do some fine-tuning before the first blizzard hits.
The reviews are in from many districts that have implemented e-learning days in their schools, and they’re generally positive. Reports range from the benefits for districts that don't incur the cost and hassle of scheduling makeup days, to the value for students learning to effectively telecommute like so many adult professionals now do. And for rural school districts, some of which are already on four-day-a-week schedules to cut transportation costs, e-learning days are a huge benefit.

As weather phenomena continue to disrupt school schedules — districts in hurricane-prone regions take note — one expects the demand for e-learning days will continue to grow, especially for schools that have the technology infrastructure in place to support them. So it’s incumbent on state departments of education to work with their legislators and school districts to develop reasonable and effective e-learning day implementation procedures.

For those bemoaning the loss of snow days, chalk this one up to the steady march of progress. But please, teachers, go easy on those e-learning day assignments so kids still have time to get outside and make some snowpeople.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.