This is the kind of winter we’ll brag about surviving – a winter where a kid’s wish for an unexpected day of freedom from the school routine becomes reality… again and again. But snow days don’t necessarily mean a day off like they used to. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) recently authorized the use of up to five eLearning days that count as official student contact days when school is closed due to inclement weather.
What is eLearning? MDE defines it as “a school day where a school offers full access to online instruction provided by the students’ individual teachers due to inclement weather.” The MDE has specified some criteria but the concept is implemented differently by various districts and even goes by different names. The Department of Education only specifies what eLearning means in order to count the days as student contact days for funding purposes. Beyond that, it’s up to the district leadership to decide how they’ll handle snow days. MDE guidelines state:
eLearning Attendance – Attendance will be taken by teachers via email/text/or phone call to the student, by a parent, or recorded by a Learning Management System (LMS, such as Google Classroom or Schoology). According to the policy, students must attend either online or be provided with materials or aids. Teachers must be available by phone, email, or via online processes (like an LMS) throughout the school day except during prep times and lunch. The one exception is if the governor cancels school throughout the state. Then everyone still has the day off. The eLearning days are school days and if a family makes the choice that their student(s) will not “attend” it will be marked as an absence. Whether that absence is excused or not is up to the school.
Process – Schools must notify parents at least two hours prior to the school’s start time that it will be an eLearning day
Content – School work assigned for eLearning must fit with the curriculum and further the goals of regular classroom instruction. Work must be turned in and assessed. An eLearning day cannot be a “homework catch-up day” but is meant, instead, to make progress on learning goals of the regular classroom curriculum. This work is expected to be done during regular school hours.
For additional detail on this plan search online for March 2018 Memorandum: Program plan for eLearning days – MDE. It explains Minnesota Statutes, section 120A.414.
Superintendent Chuck Ehler and the Rushford-Peterson School Board have embraced the new policy and are making use of it during this challenging winter. The district has had at least nine days closed for inclement weather “and winter isn’t done with us yet,” Ehler predicts. Rushford-Peterson takes advantage of the five days allowed but will also require eLearning on all days that school is cancelled.
Other school districts in Fillmore County have had different responses. For example, Mabel-Canton Superintendent Gary Kuphal says, “At Mabel-Canton we don’t utilize eLearning days… our snow days are the traditional way” – they’re days off. “Our school board approved the eLearning concept a few years ago but has decided not to implement it.” Fillmore Central’s superintendent, Richard Keith explains how their district works: The MDE requires at least 165 days of student attendance for full funding. “Our school board’s annual calendar has 175 student days and easily meets the hour requirements for all grade levels.” This district’s eLearning days are called “flex-learning” but Keith says that the terms, Flex-Learning and eLearning, are interchangeable. Five flex-learning days will count as student contact days.
Those who choose eLearning give these reasons: it allows teachers to “maintain the flow of instruction” (Keith), “…to utilize the technology we have available to us to sustain and maintain what we’re doing in the classroom even when students aren’t in class” (Ehler).
Ehler hopes that parents and students embrace eLearning and the way it personalizes instruction. He says to them, “You have some skin in the game. We set parameters for you but we want you to be involved, self-directed and personally responsible for learning.” Ehler emphasizes that “eLearning is not meant to replace the value of the teacher in the classroom or the benefit of face-to-face instruction. But, at the same time, the technology is available to us. As students progress and as technology advances, eLearning is naturally a more common way to learn…”
eLearning, just like face-to-face learning, comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks. One benefit, shown by research, confirms that students are more and more engaged with their technology and naturally turn to it for information. With eLearning the student becomes the center of his or her own learning and it also enables instructional pacing to be adjusted. Some students need additional time to fill in gaps. Other students grasp the required concepts quickly and are able to spend their efforts accelerating their learning.
There are drawbacks. Students need internet access or must be provided with a device or relevant materials from the school to access their learning. For some, this makes it difficult. Effective eLearning also requires that online learners have an understanding of how to access the learning system (logging on, submitting work, participating in assessments), that they are actually receiving valuable instruction and that they know how to learn effectively online (active exploration, pacing, online collaboration). In addition, students learning online need self-discipline, control of distractions, and support from parents and families. Some students have these elements of success, others don’t, which can create an uneven playing field.
Teachers themselves have varying levels of expertise preparing effective online instruction. To take advantage of eLearning’s greatest strengths, teachers need to effectively interact with their students online, integrate classroom and online instruction, enable students to interact with each other and develop collaborative learning communities while accommodating those without full online access. They need to capitalize on the ability of eLearning to individualize instruction so students can take advantage of its self-paced, self-directed aspects.
“There has been feedback both positive and negative,” Ehler notes. It’s a system that doesn’t work as well for some families. “But parents have also told us that they appreciate eLearning days when their kids have structure, and high school and middle school teachers like it from the standpoint that they can continue on with instruction and expect their students to continue learning even with snow day disruptions.” Keith says, “The primary reason for going to the flex-learning format was to maintain the flow of instruction without adding days to the calendar in the summer or just forgiving days lost due to inclement weather.” A lot of thought goes into school board decisions to utilize eLearning or not and there are benefits and drawbacks no matter what choices are made. For now, the variations in handling snow days and eLearning in Fillmore County allow districts to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of these decisions and move forward in ways that work best for learners and their families.