Westonka Schools had five closings, four late starts and one early release last school year, most of those happening within the same two weeks beginning that last week in January when wind chills forced real-feel temperatures to the deep negatives. The next month was hardly better: February was the snowiest winter on record.
Gov. Tim Walz forgave schools their cancellations last year when he signed the bipartisan “Snow Days” bill the state legislature passed with widespread support.
That piece of legislation was a boon to many districts in Minnesota. State aid to school districts is in part contingent on meeting a certain number of instructional hours each year – about 1,000 for most students grades one and up. Every school closing eats into that small bank of days that school is in session beyond that number and puts pressure on districts to make up the days missed.
Which is why Westonka converted its teacher prep day in May to a regular school day last year, said Mark Femrite, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Westonka. The district is now putting together an eLearning plan to act as buffer against the risk of financial fallout for missed school days in future years.
Westonka’s eLearning plan only covers weather-related closures, not late starts or early releases, or closures for any other reason than weather events.
It also would take three prior closings within any given school year for an eLearning day to go into effect: The first two cancellations would be just what every kid dreams about – snow days without any supplemental curricula or schedule changes. The third cancellation would convert the district’s May workshop to an instructional day, and the fourth cancellation would trigger an eLearning day, said Femrite.
“I am hoping we do not need to use an eLearning day,” said Femrite. “Ultimately, the best learning is going to happen in the classroom.”
Staff are guided by Minnesota statute. According to the statute, schools are allowed up to five eLearning days per year. The statute also provides minimum requirements for what those days must include, such as student-teacher communication.
Further parameters were provided to school superintendents by the Minnesota Department of Education, which emphasized the need for “accessible digital instruction” for kids with special needs as well as accommodations for students who may not have Internet access at home, a real possibility for a number of houses in the area, particularly in Minnetrista.
eLearning plans are not new to the state, but last winter had many districts’ administrators drafting such plans for their schools.
Femrite said that Farmington, Robbinsdale and Northfield public school districts served as models for staff putting together Westonka’s eLearning plan, which is expected to be put in front of the school board for a vote by late November.
The district also won’t be starting from scratch: Westonka has used two Learning Management Systems (LMS) for a few years now, and those systems already in place will be easy to integrate into any eLearning plan.
“Schoology is like taking an online college course – it’s very robust” said Femrite of the LMS in place for grades three through 12 at Westonka. “The students and teacher can interact back and forth; the teacher can set up tests, assessments, homework assignments; students can upload and send back to the teacher assignments, and it’s all time stamped.”
Westonka is also a one-to-one district, and even its youngest students are already learning with the aid of technology.
Those frameworks already in place – the LMS and the one-to-one program – will greatly help in creating the eLearning plan because there will be no additional costs associated with the plan, said Femrite.
“When I was in college, you couldn’t do this!” said Femrite. “You didn’t have WiFi or email – you couldn’t do this. And nowadays, we have these learning management systems like SeeSaw and Schoology. It makes it so easy to have the learning continue and it can be truly quality learning.”
“That’s the excitement of it, the potential – that we don’t have to miss a beat.”
Staff are still working out the details for the plan, particularly around hard copy alternatives for assignments and student-teacher communication; state law says teachers must be available for students via both email and phone, but Femrite said teachers would not be pressured into giving out their personal numbers.
Staff have floated the idea of teacher “office hours” and having voicemails forwarded as a way to cover the communication requirement of the law. Femrite also said that alternative assignments would likely be created on a case-by-case basis.