Virtual school not answer to snow days

Some Hoosier schools are looking to technology and e-learning to keep students from missing educational instruction on snow days.

But for now, that’s not an

option for any schools in Jackson County.

Last year, local schools closed up to 15 days because of snow, ice and extremely cold temperatures. To make up that lost time, many chose to extend the school day by an hour.

If virtual learning were available to students and teachers, however, those days wouldn’t necessarily have to be made up. The Indiana Department of Education has approved the virtual option for 29 public school systems and eight private schools so far.

Greg Walker, superintendent of Brownstown Central Community Schools, said the district cannot offer off-site virtual learning because not all students have access to computers or the Internet at home.

Many school systems across the state, including Crothersville and Seymour Community Schools, have begun 1:1 technology initiatives to put computers in the hands of all students. Brownstown Central and Medora Community Schools have not.

“At this time, we are not a 1-to-1, so students don’t take devices home,” Walker said.

The district recently spent millions of dollars to upgrade its classroom technology at all three of its schools, but buying computers for every student would be too expensive, he added.

Even if each child were issued a laptop or tablet computer to take home, Walker said it would be difficult if not impossible to verify that every student in kindergarten through 12th grade was actually online and participating. Teachers also would have to be online at all times throughout the day so students could ask questions by email or talk to them and their classmates through social programs such as Google Chat or Google Hangout.

He does see the value in the option, though.

“The kids are at home, but they’re not just playing in the snow. They are actually learning, and you don’t have to make it up,” he said. “If we get into a situation like last year, where we missed so many days, I think we would revisit the idea.”

At Crothersville Community Schools, fourth-graders through high school seniors have school-issued iPads they can use at school and at home. It’s part of an overall master technology plan that school officials say is vital for student success.

David Schill, principal of Crothersville Junior-Senior High School, said he has been pushing for e-learning capabilities there for the past three years. The biggest problem is that not all grades are on the 1:1 model yet.

“Our elementary has not been equipped with devices until this year,” he said. “They rolled out their system this fall.”

Schill said he has seen the benefits of virtual learning. Currently, vocational students from Crothersville High School, who attend the C4 Career Center in Columbus, have to do online work at certain times of the year because the districts’ calendars don’t match.

“They work online when C4 is on a break and we are in school. It seems to be a very successful venture for both C4 and our students,” Schill said.

For students who don’t have access to Wi-Fi or the Internet at home, Schill said, there are lessons they can access on their iPads so that they are working and receiving instruction.

“My staff can download some materials to My Big Campus, our curricular data base, that is able to be accessed without Internet capability,” he said.

Now that Crothersville Elementary School has begun issuing iPads to students, Schill hopes that next year the school system will be able to address inclement weather through virtual learning.

Although he feels the option would be beneficial, he said it would have to be tried and monitored to evaluate its effectiveness.

“I think it will work well when a school has an occasional day out,” he said. “This is one of the big advantages that technology can afford to schools to keep our students engaged during what otherwise would be dead days due to being away from instruction and the learning environment.”

Seymour Community School Corp. is in a pilot 1:1 program and has issued Chromebooks, which are small, laptop-style computers, to all students at the Sixth Grade Center and to many students at Seymour High School this year.

Brian Rodman, director of technology for Seymour Community Schools, said he believes that virtual learning is a viable option for snow days and that eventually many more schools will make it available.

“We are just not in the position to get that accomplished at this time,” he said.

That’s because being the largest school system in the county with more than 4,300 students, it’s going to take a lot of money to purchase Chromebooks for every student.

“We’re still in a pilot program and can’t accomplish full implementation until we get more of the devices,” he said.

Parent Kendra Harris of Seymour said she would be supportive of virtual learning for her children in the event school is canceled but worries that it wouldn’t benefit all students.

“Some students don’t have access to the Internet at home, and this could put them at an even greater disadvantage,” she said.

Rodman said teachers can develop their lessons and make them available to the students through the My Big Campus application. But he said there are limitations to virtual learning, and it doesn’t take the place of classroom instruction.

“You do lose some of that interaction with the kids, and there are some things we would have to figure out; but I think in certain situations it could work,” he said. “It will never replace being in the classroom. It’s just another option to use.”

Author photo
January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.