Snow day’s virtual classroom: lessons at home

Daily News Article   —   Posted on February 18, 2014

(by Patricia Alex and Mary Diduch, The NJ Bergen Record) – New Jersey’s Pascack Valley Regional High School District on Thursday pioneered the virtual snow day in New Jersey, but similar experiments are under way across the country as this year’s extreme winter weather wreaks havoc with traditional school schedules.

Momentum is building in places like Ohio, where some schools have had to cancel classes for as many as 14 days only midway through winter. The Pascack Valley plan to have snow-bound students do schoolwork at home on their school-issued laptops traveled the nation on websites and newswires and generated discussion as an idea whose time has come. …


Freshman Isabella Tolomeo working on an English assignment in her kitchen Thursday as her dad, Jim, watched.

The regional district, which includes Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills high schools, took a leap of faith in piloting the virtual snow day, hoping the NJ Education Department will approve it as a substitute for one of the 180 school days mandated by law.  [In this New Jersey district, each of the 2,000 students in the district’s two high schools, as well as their teachers, have laptops that cost $1 million in total and are replaced every two years. Few students do not have a Wi-Fi Internet connection at home, according to the NY Times.]

“Our regulations on school attendance were created before the PC was created and our laws were created before virtual learning. However, we do support innovation,” said Mike Yaple, spokesman for the NJ state Department of Education, which is going to assess whether the virtual coursework was as rigorous as a day of actual school.

Erik Gundersen, superintendent of the district, said teachers used a wide range of tactics to connect with students via their laptops – from social networking to live video chatting to discussion boards.  He said he viewed the day as a “great success,” but that a true assessment will be based on data about student learning that will be sent to the state. …..

The 1,200-student school also got involved on a special Twitter feed for the day. Superintendent Gundersen said the Twitter feed showed an “honest perspective” of students’ reactions to the day.

Gundersen said he already has heard from some other districts that might experiment with virtual snow days. He added that while his district has the luxury of being able to offer laptops to all its students, there might be other ways to get around that hurdle.  “We have some creative individuals [in educational leadership] who are going to be able to figure out how to engage students from home with devices they have at home already,” Gundersen said.

New Milford NJ Superintendent Mike Polizzi said his district would most likely consider a BYOD – bring your own device – route in adopting more virtual learning.

Chicago is experimenting with virtual snow days on a limited basis. And in New Hampshire and Ohio, state legislatures and school boards have already made changes to allow for virtual snow days. The programs there are called “Blizzard Bags” because the material to be covered can also be printed out and sent home in a bag for students without access to computers or the Internet.

[In New York State, where no district can substitute a virtual day for a snow day, Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the state’s Education Department, noted that not all students have computers or Internet access. And for students to truly keep up, he said, “a thoughtful plan aligned with the curriculum” would need to be developed before a storm struck.]

As the winter storm season has gotten worse this year, the number of districts in Ohio that have applied to participate has jumped to nearly 300, said John Charlton, spokesman for the Ohio state Education Department. That number represents about 20 percent of districts in the state and is only expected to increase, he said.

But in New Hampshire, districts are proceeding more cautiously. Todd DeMitchell, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, said issues beyond the technology need to be addressed such as teacher training. “Teaching online is a different skill set,” said DeMitchell. “To be able to translate success in the classroom online doesn’t automatically happen. … And what happens when the power goes out?”

And while virtual snow days may work in high school, it may be more of a challenge in lower grades.

Back in North Jersey, Alexa Hirschberg of Woodcliff Lake, a student at Pascack Hills High School, spent her morning Thursday figuring out an honors physics problem. For gym, she needed to measure her heart rate after shoveling snow. Then it was back to the laptop.  “It may be ending up more work than school – I’m not sure but it’s a lot of work so far,” said her mom, Beth Hirschberg. …..

Isabella Tolomeo, a 14-year-old freshman, said she’d be happy if the virtual day meant fewer days [at school]. “It works well because now we don’t have to stay in school longer or have to take off from our spring break,” Isabella said. She, too, thought the virtual day may have contained more work than a usual school day.

Her dad said he noticed there was a bit of initial confusion over the way the day would go, but it all seemed to work out. “I think that they may have something here, I really do,” said Jim Tolomeo.

Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from The Record. Visit the website at NorthJersey .com.


TWO TEACHER REACTIONS: (from the Record article)

Tina Marchiano, who teaches English and theater arts, said that her students appeared to be more involved than usual and communicated with her and each other above and beyond the required one post and one comment.

Marchiano had her students watch two YouTube videos of slam poets and parse them on a discussion board. The online format seemed to widen the discussion beyond the students who usually participate and, at times, allow for greater depth.

“Here, I’m literally able to have every kid participate and have them give their own thoughts,” Marchiano said. “It just really allows the kids to elaborate.”

Jim Kennedy, who teaches science and education technology and is head of the teachers union at Pascack, said the story of the day is that the majority of students diligently logged on around 8 a.m. and were interacting virtually all day.

Kennedy said through a Google Docs discussion, 75 of his 101 kids responded positively about the day, and he is sure more results and reactions will become available in the coming days.

The day also allowed him to hear voices that usually go unheard during the school day. “A couple kids I didn’t think that would respond did, and what they responded was tremendous,” Kennedy said.