No more snow days after COVID? These schools used online learning to cancel them.

Years before the coronavirus outbreak, two rural school districts developed plans to bring learning online. They were ready for a blizzard and instead found themselves prepared for a pandemic.
It took four years to move online for Bancroft-Rosalie Community Schools in northeast Nebraska. Gradually, online software was introduced into daily lesson plans to be used in bad weather or in the absence of a teacher in lieu of hiring representatives. The district used digital learning to do away with snow days - a trend that has spread to New York City and could take hold across the country.
Going online full time happened in ways no one could have foreseen. On March 11, following a possible widespread COVID-19 exposure at a girls state basketball game, staff had about an hour to get approximately 285 students out the door with tablets in hand.
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Last winter, after five years of work, officials in the Bermudian Springs School District in southern Pennsylvania launched a program that allows students to study online from teachers for a few days a year on snowy days and on business days. On March 13, as counties across the state closed due to the virus, school officials relied on the program to train 1,960 students full-time.
Much of rural America had little option to switch students to online learning when schools closed due to the coronavirus. According to a Microsoft study from 2018, roughly half of Americans - 163 million people - don't have access to high-speed internet. But these districts had already put learning online and distributed equipment to hundreds of students.
When school started again in the fall, there was chaos in some districts, with late start dates, confusing digital programs, and students switching between in-person and online classes. Again, for many rural schools, online learning was not an option.
Not so with Bancroft-Rosalie and Bermudian Springs. Officials from both districts said school started off more smoothly as staff and students knew what to expect and connectivity and equipment issues had already been fixed. Bermudian Springs, which reopened with a hybrid schedule for both in-person and online classes, changed its start date twice to prepare for the school year and give teachers a week to train, collaborate, and load lessons into the online systems give. Bancroft-Rosalie allows students to choose in-person or online training.
An anatomy and physiology class at Bancroft-Rosalie meets face-to-face with a distant learner attending the Zoom course.
Parent Amy Leatherman has seen Bermudian Springs grow since last spring. She is a teacher in another district that did not have an online study schedule before the pandemic.
This spring she said, "I was grateful to my own family and children that I knew what the setup would look like."
Goodbye, snow days
Bancroft-Rosalie, located in an agricultural community that spans parts of the Omaha reservation, has been using e-learning days since November 2016. The new system helped staff integrate technology into their classes and encouraged students to use online systems for classroom and other school purposes. related information. Each student also received an iPad.
Before the pandemic, e-learning only lasted a day or two. Assignments were assigned with the expectation that the students would meet face-to-face with the teachers once the school was back in session.
"We have a large media center that can accommodate up to 60 students. When a teacher is away, students have e-learning assignments in the media center," Bancroft-Rosalie superintendent Jon Cerny said in an email.
With students working online, snow days were a thing of the past in Bancroft-Rosalie when the pandemic broke out. Now other districts, including New York Schools, have canceled snow days or are trying to get rid of them because of the proliferation of online training. In the case of New York, those responsible said abolishing the snow days will help the district spend as many days of class as possible.
“When we started doing this, people weren't interested in remote learning on snowy days. They thought this was a day children should have a day off. People are going to rethink how distance learning can be used in schools now, ”said Cerny.
A distance teacher at Bancroft Rosalie Schools reviews an elementary school student's work on Zoom.
After using the system full-time this spring, Bancroft-Rosalie quickly learned what works and what doesn't. The school initially did not attempt to teach new concepts to young students after learning went online.
"In hindsight, we could have given new classes to grades K-3 by dividing the students into small groups and teaching them via video conference," said Cerny.
This year, an elementary school teacher is set to work with elementary school students who have chosen to attend school online, Cerny said. Middle and high school teachers teach students both online and in person.
If enough teachers end up in COVID-19 quarantine, the backup plan, according to Cerny, is to move several classes to the gym, distribute students and let them participate in digital and personal learning.
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The real thing
In Bermudian Springs, a district between thousands of acres of apple, cherry and peach orchards, the online tutorial was still in its infancy when the pandemic began.
The school has updated the WiFi, trained teachers and bought iPads since 2015. Last fall, Superintendent Shane Hotchkiss applied for the district to use Flexible Instructional Days. According to Pennsylvania rules, a school can use class time outside of school for up to five of the 180 days of required instruction.
The first flexible day of classes took place on February 14th to form a snow day in January.
Until the next month, the district's learning was completely remote. Fifth through twelfth grade students were sent home with iPads, and the district later distributed an additional 150 devices to younger students.
Chromebook Distribution Bermudian Springs' fully online students. After using its online learning program during school closings this spring, the school reopened with a hybrid format. All students study online for part of the week. Some take part in person a few days a week.
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During the test run in February, the families also had to adjust to a new way of learning.
Leatherman's concerns included one of her daughters' algebra battles and the internet "falling off" because of so many people in the area using it.
When the district began making the transition to online, teachers called to check internet connectivity, device availability, and children's wellbeing.
"It's not just about schoolwork," Leatherman said.
Still, the pandemic changed parts of the program, including the way online class attendance was counted, Hotchkiss said. Initially, participation should depend on whether a student has done a certain percentage of homework.
That changed when employees realized that every family's situation is different. Teachers began to check that students were logging into the online systems and interacting with the classes. You reached out to students who hadn't signed up in a while.
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Leatherman felt that the staff made the best decisions for the students, but she still feared that her children would not learn as much as they did before. She was also concerned about her emotional well-being during social distancing.
“Our family just has the stress of learning from home and losing social interaction. We just have to care about the academic and social wellbeing of our children, ”Leatherman said in an email this spring. “Other families work outside the home, have job loss, and have concerns about eating and online learning for their children. Some families deal with children who have mental health problems and who no longer serve them. The thought of schools that won't return next school year scares me. "
Despite that fear, Leatherman and her husband decided to send their children back to school this fall. Bermudian Springs students have been divided into two groups, and students attend school Monday through Wednesday or Tuesday through Thursday, and alternately on Fridays. Students have online classes for the days that they are not in school.
Middle school students in Bermudian Springs have lunch in a classroom to maintain social distance.
“We have three children who learn best at school and want to be with their peers. From an emotional point of view, we felt like they had to be with friends for a few days, ”said Leatherman.
Connection price
Despite years of preparation, Bancroft-Rosalie and Bermudian Springs faced the same problem after closing the school doors: How can some of their students be connected to the Internet? Unequal access to internet and broadband is widespread in many rural communities across the country.
In a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center, 6 in 10 rural adults said they had high-speed internet at home. Access differs depending on a household's income or level of education, as another Pew study showed.
"Regardless of income or education, rural Americans were more likely to say this was a problem where they live," said Monica Anderson, who helps lead internet and technology research for Pew.
Bancroft-Rosalie had assistance getting students online for the coming year. During the summer, schools on the Omaha and Santee Sioux Reservations, as well as the Nebraska Indian Community College, had broadband access from nearby towers. The effort was part of a federal program to allow tribal units, particularly in rural America, to use air waves. The college bought 4G LTE devices for each of the parishes in the reservations to access broadband.
Bermudian Springs needed to get more creative when it came to helping its students.
After devices were shipped this spring, there were still about 110 children who didn't have internet at home, Hotchkiss said.
“It's a small percentage, but that's still a percentage of our children that I worry about. We're just trying to meet their needs in different ways, ”said Hotchkiss.
In the spring, the district extended its WiFi to the parking lot, and a local internet company opened a hotspot for families. Borrowed newspaper kiosks in front of the school gave families the opportunity to pick up homework packages. Packages can either be returned or dropped off. From there, the papers were quarantined for several days before being scanned and sent to the teachers.
As school closings continued, the district also developed a plan to connect families and teachers at home to the internet, using federal and state grants. The district also purchased 200 free hotspots from T-Mobile.
Bancroft-Rosalie also takes care of the internet for some families.
Last school year, OK school board bought 13 family mobile hotspots for $ 1,485 from the district's general fund, Cerny said. At the time, the Internet was costing the district about $ 463.90 per month. This fall, the district will only support two households.
The cost is "a small price that you really have to pay to continue your education," said Cerny.
As the pandemic drags on, rural schools are realizing that online learning and digital tools must continue to be part of education in the future, even after COVID-19 is in the past. The "hybrid" models of in-person and online schooling that districts instituted during the pandemic could continue in some form, said Allen Pratt, executive director of the National Rural Education Association.
"We don't want to go backwards after that, which means we're just going back to a real brick," said Pratt.
This reporting was supported by a Spencer Fellowship in Education Reporting at Columbia University's Journalism School. Follow Samantha Hernandez on Twitter: @svhernandez
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: COVID Ending Snow Days? These schools used the online classes to cancel them

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