When snowstorms turn school districts into winter wonderlands, everybody’s routine can be thrown off track. If inclement weather is too severe for travel, schools close, often to the delight of students who have grown accustomed to using the extra time to play outside, rest, and relax. Many teachers also do this on the snow day or use the extra hours to grade papers and plan future lessons. The unscheduled time off can be a blessing, but the time missed in class for a snow day must be made up. In the recent past, some states began allowing schools to implement e-learning days or virtual learning days when school has been called off due to inclement weather. This strategy helps minimize the number of make-up days districts must add to the school calendar in order to be in compliance with state education laws. When a district announces that a virtual learning day will take place, students are expected to complete assignments that will count toward their attendance. Virtual learning days seem like a good way to keep kids’ learning on track, but with them come challenges that need to be addressed before it can be considered a practical way to educate children.
First and foremost, access to a laptop, tablet, Chromebook, or similar device is mandatory for virtual learning. Districts that have traded textbooks for devices will have to send these home with the students prior to the day school will be cancelled. Many of these districts already allow students to travel to and from school with their devices, but those who haven’t been practicing this will need to train the student body on how to appropriately care for the electronics that they will be bringing home. It’s necessary to make parents aware of the rules and procedures students should follow when using their device away from school. Equally important is the prior experience students need in order to complete the learning activities assigned by teachers. Virtual learning days are not the time to introduce students to a new program or expect them to navigate through a new learning platform. Instead, whatever the assignment, it should be presented in a way that is familiar to them. When students are used to the kind of homework they are going to do, they are more likely to complete the assignments with success.
Many believe that students will be required to have internet access on the day virtual learning is declared. This is not the case. Schools know that this is too much to ask out of their students; that is why assignments are designed with this in mind. Prior to leaving before the anticipated snow day, the devices are loaded with all that the student will need to complete the work. Teachers should also preview the virtual lesson with the students and introduce them to the directions they will follow later on their own.
Carrying out a successful virtual learning day requires a good deal of preplanning on the part of the teacher. Making sure students have the lesson on their devices is just one necessary part of this. Additionally, that lesson must provide continuity with the learning that students have been taking part in while in the classroom setting. The content covered by students during virtual learning should be like the lesson that would have been presented by the teacher had the school building been open on that day. This is one of the reasons why virtual learning days usually only occur on the first day of consecutive snow days. Preplanning can be challenging for teachers. Reaching out to experienced colleagues and addressing this issue in department meetings can help.
How to Help Students at Home
Naturally, students will run into problems when working alone on their virtual assignments. Due to this, many districts mandate that teachers make themselves available to students during the hours that school normally takes place. Contact information should be provided by the teacher to students prior to the virtual learning day. Teachers have a variety of choices in how they can be contacted by students. Older students or those who have simple questions may e-mail their teachers. Others may seek help using a program like Skype or Google Hangouts where parties can send messages to one another or hold video conferences. This can be especially helpful if the program allows the teacher to share his or her own computer screen, enabling the student to follow along in step-by-step instructions. Commonly, students like to call their teachers to get questions answered in real time. While some have no worries about distributing personal numbers to students, other teachers want to avoid giving out this information. Technology has found a way around that: programs like Google Voice create virtual phone numbers that teachers can give to students. Even though students call a virtual number, the call is connected to the teachers’ personal number. Not all questions may be able to be handled away from the classroom, however. This means that teachers will still have to anticipate dealing with homework trouble when students do return to school.
Another part of preplanning a teacher must do involves making accommodations and modifications for students with special needs. Students who have IEPs or LEPs or who receive Title 1 services cannot always be given the same assignments as other students. This means that the teacher must have prepared the virtual learning day with these students in mind.
Finding a Balance
Virtual learning days can be a big adjustment for students in how they use their time. Students must find a balance between enjoying the snow day at their leisure and managing time so that they meet the expectations of the virtual learning day. Each child’s goal is to not only learn on this day but to also have it count towards their yearly attendance. School districts understand that completing lessons away from the classroom can be difficult for some. One way to help everyone make the virtual learning count is to allow students multiple days to complete the work that was assigned. School policies vary in the number of days students have to turn in assignments, but, generally, they are given three days to finish the work.
Due to the amount of preplanning required, possible questions from students, and other factors, it is not practical for schools to declare consecutive virtual learning days. The weather has been known to keep districts closed for days and sometimes weeks at a time. Attempting to preplan for this or expecting students to master skills while gone for lengthy periods does not make sense. Still, substituting a virtual learning day for a regular school day can make a world of difference in the lives of all school stakeholders. Virtual learning days can keep people from having to make severe adjustments in their calendars when make-up days are the alternative. Virtual learning can help keep vacation plans or graduation dates the same, not to mention save students from losing the gains that they make in their learning.