By Mike Marsee
Could snow days become a thing of the past in Kentucky schools? Perhaps not soon, but a program that allows instruction to go on even when schools are closed might be a step in that direction.
The Kentucky Department of Education is allowing 13 districts to use virtual or other non-traditional means of instruction to replace up to 10 snow days this winter that would not have to be made up. Teachers in those districts have been getting ready for winter days in which classes may be called off but learning will go on.
“It’s hard to come up with lessons a month or two in advance, and in fact, we’ve had to put a little extra work into finding things kids can do in an hour of time that are different from what normal instruction for a class looks like,” said Michelle Feistritzer, a business teacher at Boyle County High School. “It will be different, and it’s nice to know we’re getting the opportunity.”
Some districts have been preparing for non-traditional days for months.
“We first started writing the unit (four) weeks ago, but the brainstorming ideas have been going on since school started,” said Megan Bowling, a social studies teacher at Owsley County High School.
In most cases, classes will continue online in hopes of keeping the school year from extending well into June as it did during the harsh winter of 2013-14, when some Kentucky schools were closed for as many as 35 days.
“Superintendents were coming to KDE and saying, ‘We need help,’ and this is an opportunity to get some relief for up to 10 days,” said Beth Peterson of the Kentucky Department of Education’s Division of Innovation and Partner Engagement.
Each of the 13 approved districts submitted a plan for providing alternative methods of instruction on days when classes might be canceled due to winter weather or emergencies. In the spring, districts will submit documentation of student and faculty participation and measurements of student learning on the missed days, and KDE will determine the number of days that can be waived.
Most districts will use learning management systems such as Edmodo or Blackboard.
“As we become more and more digital and our tools turn more and more to digital content, we see the value of more and more resources becoming available online and our teachers doing that more,” said Susan Taylor, the district technology coordinator for Boyle County schools.
Feistritzer is in her third year of using Edmodo. She said she posts lessons and assignments there every day.
“I attach files, post links. It won’t be anything new for me, because this is what we’re doing every day,” she said.
Schools in Owsley and Wolfe counties participated in a pilot program over the last two years, and they are among the 13 districts taking part in this year’s program.
“I think what we’re doing is we’re changing as we’re growing and learning from what works and what doesn’t work,” Owsley Superintendent Tim Bobrowski said. “I think that was the initial point of doing the pilot, to take our strengths and match them up against our weaknesses.”
Jennifer Hall, a biology teacher at Owsley County High, said teachers at the high school and middle school there implemented different programs in each of their first two years in the pilot program and will try something new again this year.
The school will offer an intersession from Dec. 1 to March 1. Four groups of high school teachers and two groups of middle school teachers have come up with topics and lesson plans for students, who can choose a topic for which they will receive a stand-alone grade and a quarter of a credit.
“The group I’m in this year, we are doing abnormal psychology. We’re creating a project and discussing topics such as criminal profiling, personality disorders, things they see on TV,” Hall said. “For our group project, we’re going to build our own lie detector, and they are going to conduct an experiment”
The students will compare three different methods of determining lies, analyze the data and come to a conclusion about the reliability of each method and whether it could determine if the person was lying.
“We wanted to do something we thought the kids would actually enjoy doing … and some of the topics we’re doing this year are the kinds of things we as teachers are interested in, so the enthusiasm shows for the teachers, too.”
Bowling said her unit, called “Treasure Hunters,” will have students use map skills as they discover the location of “Kentucky treasures” and study the paths of historical explorers and treasure hunters. Later, they’ll be involved in letterboxing, an activity similar to geocaching in which participants use clues to find hidden boxes, then write their own treasure hunt.“I love it,” she said. “I like that it’s flexible so that they’re able to learn, and when they are off there’s no time lapse between the instruction, so it’s continuous.”
Feistritzer said teachers at Boyle have been working on their plans for some time.
“We’re already formulating ideas,” she said. “The responsibility is on everyone’s shoulders from teachers to the students to the parents to work this out together, and I think our students will follow through when you give them the reason of why we’re doing it.”
She said non-traditional days might also be used to help high school students prepare for standardized testing.
“What we focus on quite a bit in the spring semester is actually working and getting kids prepped, so this will be an ideal time. There’s so much web-based info and so much kids can do as far as remediation and the practice work, and that’s what we do when the kids are here,” Feistritzer said.
Peterson said she hopes more schools will make use of original lessons as the program grows, and she said the e-learning team in KDE’s Division of Student Success stands ready to help districts and schools.
“We’re offering professional development if needed. We’d like to help them if they’re interested in how to set up online lessons that incorporate different educational applications,” she said.
While some districts might want to start making use of non-traditional days the first time school is called off, that didn’t happen when classes were canceled at Boyle on Nov. 17.
“We’re gathering information, and we are training the teachers in making sure the students can use Edmodo or whatever management system they’re using. We don’t want the first non-traditional day to be the first time a student logs into Edmodo,” assistant superintendent David Young said.
Boyle had intended to wait until several snow days had accumulated to use non-instructional dates but has since changed its timeline and will most likely use them sooner.
“This comes from feedback that we’ve received from parents, students and staff. After communicating the plans out to our district community, everyone felt like our plan was solid and ready to move on it should the opportunity present itself,” Taylor said.
Jessamine County also waited because plans weren’t finalized on its first snow day. Its program began Dec. 1.
Peterson said, however, that she hopes districts won’t wait.
“Non-traditional instruction may not be implemented on single snow days, or on days early in the winter, but we encourage districts to not wait too long to implement non-traditional instruction because the goal of the program is to prevent learning loss,” she said.
Administrators are aware of that.
“We understand about student learning that every day that they’re not in school, their learning regresses some,” Boyle’s Young said. “When you miss one snow day and you’re back the next day, there’s not a lot of regression there … but if you have several snow days, there’s a lot of time that has to be spent going back to review.”
“You have the summer loss, and we know that’s there, but when you lose 31 days to snow, how much are the kids losing?” Owsley’s Bobrowski said.
Taylor said parents of Boyle students have been sent letters describing what a non-traditional instruction day might look like and surveying the level of online access students have.
She said results from about 40 percent of those surveys had been compiled as of last week, and those results showed that 29 percent of students had “reliable” network access, 47 percent had “OK” access, 17 percent had poor access and 7 percent had no access. She said 56 percent of those responded preferred online delivery of lessons, 33 percent preferred paper packets and 11 percent preferred both methods.
Taylor said teachers will know as they plan for non-traditional days what percentage of students in a class have online access. “They can go ahead and push those kids forward, keep the class moving and not miss a beat,” she said.
The idea is taking hold in other states as well. For example, Pennsylvania has begun a pilot program this year that will allow schools to use non-traditional instruction methods for up to five days, and schools in Michigan and Ohio introduced similar programs last year.
The teachers and administrators said that if Kentucky’s program succeeds, it could open the door for other uses of non-traditional learning, such as classes from larger districts that are unavailable locally.
Bobrowski said he thinks the non-traditional approach could serve schools well in other situations, from disasters that might close schools to the case of an ill student who can’t go to school but can still keep up in .
“That key word is non-traditional, and now it’s resonated across the state in legislative action because it’s now there for schools to use if they choose to,” he said. “One of the things is you have to have the right tools in place, and the biggest tool you have to have in place is the connectivity. This might be a further push for larger communities to say, ‘Look, why can’t you provide better service in all areas across Kentucky?”
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Beth Peterson firstname.lastname@example.org
Michelle Feistritzer email@example.com
Susan Taylor firstname.lastname@example.org
David Young email@example.com
Tim Bobrowski firstname.lastname@example.org
Jennifer Hall email@example.com
Megan Bowling firstname.lastname@example.org