By Mary Spicer
Snow days, those vanishing days built into school calendars to make up for classes lost if weather conditions make the trek to bricks-and-mortar buildings untenable, may soon be going the way of the dodo.
Instead, if Conneaut School District Superintendent Jarrin Sperry and trend-setting members of his faculty and staff have anything to do with it, impassible roads and temperatures low enough to make polar bears shiver will simply flip the district into “cyber snow day” mode.
During the winter of 2013-14, Conneaut missed three days — one because of roads and two because of temperatures. While that wasn’t bad, when Sperry started looking at what was happening on the eastern side of the state, he discovered school districts missing 10 to 12 days in a row. He also noticed that while public schools were clamoring for help, parochial schools in Pennsylvania were starting to use cyber snow dates. Neighboring states, New Jersey and Ohio in particular, were also starting to move in a cyber direction.
With that, Sperry sent an email to Carolyn Dumaresq, Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of education, “asking her to let Pennsylvania lead the way,” he recalled. Sperry and Herb Bossard, the district’s technology integrator and a long-time secondary-level math teacher, were soon on their way to Harrisburg. “We showed them what we’ve done with our cyber program and how we would run a cyber snow day and they said, ‘OK,’” Sperry said.
Working with Pennsylvania Department of Education, Conneaut is now creating the rubric (procedure) that would govern the ability of schools to use cyber snow days as an alternative to instructional time in the classroom, PDE spokesperson Tim Eller told the Tribune.
In addition to providing flexibility for school districts, Eller added, the Conneaut plan takes the massive digital movement of the early 21st century into consideration. “This is expanding flexibility for schools.”
One of the things that Sperry and Bossard made very clear to Dumaresq during their Harrisburg trip was that problems will inevitably crop up. “When we started our district’s cyber program, we discovered things we hadn’t even thought of,” Sperry said. “Three years in, it’s a solid program.”
The district’s own cyber school now offers a full cyber program for grades nine through 12. Approximately a dozen students are attending the full cyber school while another 40 have opted for a blended cyber/bricks-and-mortar program. A total of approximately 60 students are participating in the district’s cyber program.
As for getting the cyber snow day test up and running, “We have some work to do,” Sperry said. “There will be training over the summer with staff, then more training in the fall with staff and students. We’ll do some simulations of snow days in the buildings so kids know what it looks and feels like — and how it works.”
Then, it will be a matter of waiting to see if the opportunity arises for a field test. “There’s always a possibility we won’t have a snow day next year,” Sperry said. “You never know from winter to winter what you’re going to have.”
There is, however, a certain element of predictability playing a key role in the development of the plan. “We usually have an idea if we’re coming up on a day that looks like it might be a snow day,” Sperry said.
How it will work
The district is taking a two-pronged approach to cyber snow days involving both traditional, paper-based materials and the Internet.
Because of that advance notice that a snow day may be in the offing, paper-based packets are being created for families without Internet access, with multiple kids and only one computer and with elementary school students requiring a print version of the materials, Sperry explained. To avoid problems with Internet accessibility, students with iPads can download a “bundle” and have work available offline before they leave for the day, he added.
In an interview with LancasterOnline, Dumaresq identified two key concerns with cyber snow days: First, it must be shown that all students have the equipment and connections to provide “equal access” to education as required under state law; and second, the program must be able to serve the special needs program.
In response to concerns about access, today, all Conneaut students in grades nine through 12 have district-issued iPads, and a recent survey indicated that more than 90 percent of the district’s middle school students have Internet access at home, Sperry said. Elementary snow day assignments will involve a combination of online and packet work, depending on the age of the child and what they can and can’t do independently, he said. In fact, teachers have already volunteered to create samples of what their snow day instruction would look like, Sperry said.
One kindergarten teacher created videos with worksheets so her kids would watch a video of her and then answer some questions, he said. They would either answer online or with paper and pencil and turn it in on the next school day.
In Conneaut, children with special needs are already in cyber school and special education teachers are working with them through chat, email and personal phone calls to help them with their homework, Sperry said.
Sperry addressed possible concerns that special needs students attending brick-and-mortar schools might not be able to make full use of the “cyber snow days” materials with a reminder that snow days almost always occur only one day at a time.
“There’s no reason they couldn’t meet with their special ed teacher when they return,” Sperry said. “Part of our rubric is that all kids have time to get work done if they can’t get it done that day.”
Snow isn’t the only issue the new program would be prepared to address. “Districts are supposed to have a plan for a pandemic — and we could continue education through a pandemic,” Sperry said.
It might come as no surprise to learn that Sperry sees the cyber snow program as a pretty positive thing. “It’s northwest Pennsylvania leading for the state,” he said with a grin.
But that isn’t all. Once the 2014-15 snow season is complete, Sperry and Bossard expect to head back to Harrisburg to address successes and pitfalls in their plan and outline a plan for moving forward.
“Let a school district set a school calendar and it’s set,” Sperry said. “No snow day. Families can make plans without fear that they’ll lose a snow day.”
Mary Spicer recently retired from her post as an education and municipal government reporter with The Meadville Tribune.