NJ online snow day rejection shows that policy still restricts online learning

The opening of this article captures the story of a school in New Jersey that moved to learning online during a day the school was closed, only to find that it couldn’t count the day. “State education officials are viewing a New Jersey school district’s “virtual school day” as an innovative idea.  However, the day will not count toward the official 180 days of school due to state laws requiring facilities be available during the school day.”

District Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen was motivated to try the new approach to a snow day because the district had already used its planned three days, and would have to schedule another school day if it lost an additional day to weather. As reported by CNN,  “Gundersen alerted teachers that he expected to cancel classes and asked them to develop lessons students could complete from home…[when school was cancelled] students logged in on school-provided laptops, they were able to ask teachers questions, work through assignments or jump into class discussions, even if they sometimes took breaks to shovel the walkways.”

At the time, the district didn’t know if the state would allow the day to count toward the required 180 days, and subsequently the New Jersey Department of Education said no, despite some signs of success: “more than 96% of Pascack Valley Regional High School District students and all of the staff logged onto their district-issued laptops.”

How much learning took place on the snow day is unknown, as logging on isn’t a good proxy for learning activity. The state could reasonably argue that the school district has to demonstrate some level of learning to meet state requirements. But the reason that the state has denied the virtual snow day counting toward state requirements appears to have nothing to do with whether learning took place, and is instead due to a state policy that assumes that facilities must be open for learning to occur.

The specifics of this case are unclear, but it shows that it is difficult to be at the cutting edge of innovation in education, because laws often don’t allow for original approaches. There are few other fields in which innovators have as many regulatory and political minefields as they find in K-12 education.