Online snow days are still a thing

From time to time we are asked the extent to which schools can use online learning to continue instruction during snow days or other school closings. The overall answer seems to be:

  • Yes it happens occasionally
  • Not very much, though, because…
  • In order to shift instruction to online at that level, a school must have a program in place that is more robust than most have.

This headline from Education Dive captures the situation well: “Online learning an alternative for snow days — but caution is necessary.”

A useful longer article makes the key point: when a school is already using online learning extensively, including ensuring that students have access to devices and the Internet from outside the school, and teachers are comfortable with communications and instruction online, it can move all instruction online when needed.

“Maconaquah School Corp. in Bunker Hill, Ind worked out a plan to hold four “eLearning Days” that first year. On these official school days, students would stay home but still “attend” their regular academic classes and complete their assignments online using their Chromebooks or tablets.

Students were already using Lenovo ThinkPads throughout the school day to access Google’s G Suite applications, including Google Docs and Google Drive, while teachers were using Google Classroom to connect with students and make assignments.

All the district had to do was move that same learning model and toolset to the home environment. One advantage: Although the district is largely situated among cornfields, all MSC students had adequate internet access, thanks to a local service provider and school supporter that had enabled line-of-sight broadband across the entire district. Still, the plan wasn’t without its challenges.”

Two points about this are particularly interesting. First, it seems clear that this level of investment is not justified solely by the desire to continue instruction on snow days or during other school closures. Investments in devices, Internet access, software and online instructional materials, teacher professional development, and other areas will run well into many hundreds or thousands of dollars per student, even without taking into account the amount of time teachers will have to spend becoming comfortable with teaching online.

But in a case when a district is already moving towards increasing use of online tools and resources in mainstream classrooms, including for online communication, adding the capabilities to continue instruction during school closures may be a fairly small marginal cost. The hard lifting will already be underway.

By far, the most common uses of devices and online tools/resources in mainstream classrooms are in substituting for something that was previously done on a classroom in non-digital, or at least non-online, format. Switching to online communication and instruction that truly transcends boundaries of time and space is rare. But in these rare instances, the schools are likely to see measurable impacts, in terms of process (such as uninterrupted instruction on snow days) and student outcomes.