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Snow days at Forest Lake Area Schools appear to be on their way out, or at least on their way to being severely diminished, after the school board’s approval of so-called “e-learning” days last week.

The Forest Lake Area School Board voted unanimously during its meeting on June 27 to approve “e-learning days,” which would require students to participate in class remotely when inclement weather prevents traditional school from taking place.

The push of e-learning days is largely due to the five days school was canceled this past winter due to inclement weather. The Minnesota Legislature approved a bill this year that forgave districts that, because of those days off, would fall short of the mandated minimum instructional hours for students. Along with that bill came the nudge that school districts adopt a plan for e-learning days, as the Legislature would not likely sign another bill to forgive snow days again. Had the bill this year not been approved, the Forest Lake Area School District would have been required to add another school day at the end of the year. Currently, there are two extra days built into the secondary level for days off due to inclement weather. FLAS Superintendent Steve Massey said that in the future, at least one day, if not two, would likely be designated a traditional snow days before the district would make the decision to utilize one of the five e-learning days allowed by law.

“We are assuming the Legislature won’t give the reprieve [again], so we’ve worked to put together an e-learning plan,” Massey said. “We have fought through a lot of details.”

“The best lessons [for e-learning] are designed to be review or a pre-learning opportunity on a new concept,” he added. “We would anticipate [inclement weather] and communicate with staff ‘Thursday might be a snow day.’ Tuesday or Wednesday we would say ‘Please prepare an activity or lesson you can provide students and prepare your learning management tool for that day in the event we have a snow day in a day or two.’”

One of the main concerns is making sure e-learning technology is available to students.

Over 150 Chromebooks are available to high school students as a part of a program for students who cannot afford their own technology, and a similar program is being looked at for the middle school level. Middle school and high school students without online access will be provided a paper copy of the lessons the day or two prior to the snow day. Elementary students will be given paper copies of projects to be completed at home; those assignments will be turned into the teacher upon students’ return to school. Attendance would be taken; students who do not check in online would be considered absent.

Teachers will be required to have online access, whether that’s at home or in another facility, and to be available via phone as well. The lesson for e-learning days would be required to be congruent to the unit students are working on.

For students on an individualized education plan, special modifications and accommodations will be met to address each student’s individual needs.

“We’ll be working on the early part of the year, identifying students on IEPs, how we will meet service needs. That’ll be captured largely in the least restrictive component in the IEP,” Massey said. “There will be quite a bit of conversation with parents of students on IEPs, and we’ll need to be really diligent in this area.”

The board questioned Massey about concerns, including when to determine to use one of the five allowed e-learning days, how teachers would communicate with students from home, and how students without internet access or computer access would be adequately served during an e-learning day.

“Since the governor and the Legislature, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to nudge us towards e-learning, I wish they would nudge their hands off the purse strings and also give us rural broadband access in our district,” Board Member Jeff Peterson said.

“When I lived in Scandia for 18 years, we had friends in town who were going here and there, but we were still snowed in,” Board Member Gail Theisen said. “There’s reference to libraries open, schools open, but many students will be socked in, and hopefully the access works and you’ve given a lot thought if everyone has a laptop if they need it. We need to be proactive in those circumstances with those kids in rural areas we have.”

Board Member Kate Luthner said a small handful of students indicated in a discussion with her that they would much rather do schoolwork on a snow day than have to attend school on a previously scheduled day off; they liked how e-learning days would avoid the need to extend the school year. Massey said that most teachers feel similarly.

“I would say that, and don’t make any suggestions I’m speaking for all staff here, but they don’t want to extend the school year or [use] spring break, and quite honestly, professional development days are precious,” Massey said. “So adjusting the calendar is really challenging, so the ability to count instructional days that have meaningful work for students, I think, is identified as a win.”

“We don’t have to run the buses on a day where conditions that are hazardous and kids are out in the frigid cold, and instead have them work from home and have the teachers interact with them and do the learning they need to do. That’s all for the good, I think,” School Board President Rob Raphael said. “I also believe it’s going to be a rough start-up.”

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Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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