One of the best parts of winter could be melting away for many Indiana students as advances in technology make snow days rarer than an igloo in July.
The state Department of Education has granted 37 public school districts and 13 private schools permission to hold online learning days in cases of inclement weather this school year. Supporters say the practice will ensure students don't miss critical instructional time ahead of the high-stakes spring ISTEP+ test and will help districts avoid extending the school year to make up missed days.
"When we add days at the end of the year, that's past the time our students have taken the assessments by which we're measured," said East Allen Community Schools Superintendent Ken Folks, whose district of about 9,100 students missed 14 days due to weather last year. "To be able to capture instructional time prior to those assessments is key to us."
But the move to replace face-to-face lessons with virtual instruction has sparked concern from members of the State Board of Education.
Board member Brad Oliver said he thinks the virtual option is worth exploring but wants assurances from the Department of Education about how attendance and instruction will be monitored. He also thinks lawmakers should define what constitutes an instructional day in a virtual learning environment to ensure students still receive the 180 days of instruction required by state law.
"I'm concerned about students getting lost in the cracks," Oliver said. "I just don't see a 7-year-old who's an average student because they're living in poverty and for whatever reason they don't have the resources at home. ... I just find it hard to believe they're going to call up the hotline to ask a teacher for help with their phonics homework."
A resolution passed by the state board earlier this month asks the Department of Education to provide more information at a meeting in January.
Schools across the country have been increasingly moving toward virtual instruction in place of snow days as more districts put technology in students' hands. Last winter's polar vortex caused some Indiana districts to miss up to 15 days, forcing them to shorten spring breaks, extend school days and tack on extra days at the end of the year.
As some districts faced the prospect of moving graduation to July, the Department of Education granted waivers allowing eligible districts to use the virtual option to make up some of the time. This year, the department is allowing schools to apply for virtual instruction days in advance.
Schools that want to use the virtual option must ensure that teachers are available to answer questions. Districts also must provide accommodations for students who would normally have assistance in the classroom and provide appropriate learning activities for those with disabilities who don't use online learning platforms.
That can include adding extra time to complete the work or apps that read content aloud, said Connie Brown, director of special services for East Allen schools.
Schools also need to ensure that even students without home Internet service can access online learning platforms. Many districts are opening computer labs or providing lists of businesses and libraries with free Internet access to ensure students can complete their lessons. Other, more rural districts, where Internet access can be a challenge have opted to stick with traditional makeup days.
Many school districts will continue to have traditional snow days built into their calendars. And schools say students who can't complete their work online won't be penalized if they cannot access the Internet.
Ralph Walker, superintendent of the 1,400-student Delphi Community School District, said his district will open its elementary school computer labs for two hours and will direct students to local libraries if access is an issue.
Walker said Delphi schools won't abandon snow days altogether. Instead, the district will use virtual learning days primarily when school officials know in advance that classes are likely to be canceled.
"If we can't plan for it, it will be a regular old-fashioned snow day that we're going to make up," he said.