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Schools Want to Do Online End-Run Around Old Man Winter

NJ Spotlight/March 14, 2014

It began with one Bergen County district, when Pascack Valley Regional High Schools turned a snow day this winter into a day of online learning, then asked the state to let it count as a regular class day in the school calendar.

Now, other districts are exploring the possibilities for their schools as well, raising a host of questions about how the state can be open to innovation while still demanding that good, equitable instruction takes place in the schools.

Educators from a dozen districts across the state – from Hackettstown to Shore Regional -- met with state Department of Education officials Wednesday to explore the online options for dealing with the rules for brick-and-mortar schools in the case of emergencies, such as this winter’s abundance of snowstorms and blizzards.

Led by Evo Popoff, assistant state education commissioner, the meeting centered on the various rules now on the books for what counts as a day of school and how those rules could be addressed in the future when extenuating circumstances arise.

Popoff said in an interview yesterday that the focus is on making sure instruction fulfills the criteria for rigor, equity and practicality of implementation.

“How do we insure there is the continuity of instruction for students?” he said. “There was a sense that these options were better than tagging a day at the end of the year. But is there equitable access for all students? That was probably talked about the most.

“And how do you ensure teachers have adequate training in this,” Popoff continued. “It is less about the curriculum itself, and more about the capacity of the districts and the teachers.”

To be sure, what Pascack Valley did for even just for one day was no minor undertaking. The district’s two high schools had a head start, with every student already provided a Mac laptop computer and teachers well-versed on using the Internet and other technological tools in their everyday instruction.

Knowing the Feb. 13 snow-storm was coming and with no more snow days on the books, the district started planning two days ahead for how it would coordinate the online instruction and alert students and families to the plans.

With both teachers and students working from their respective homes, some classes were held at their appointed hour, while others ran over the course of the day.

Students in a music class recorded themselves playing their instruments at home, then sent the recordings to the teacher to mix. Elsewhere, more academic classes involved online discussions and assigned papers that were due at the end of the day.

The district then formally applied to the state for permission to apply the day to the 180-day minimum required for all public schools, in hopes of avoiding the alternative of adding a school day in the spring or summer. It provided curriculum, schedules and extensive surveys of students and teachers to make its case.

The request remains under review, Popoff said yesterday, in part because the department is awaiting the arrival of the state’s new education commissioner, David Hespe.

Popoff said there are clearly some legal hurdles for a state where virtual learning is not explicitly addressed in its laws and regulations – a fact that has been a bone of contention, especially with charter schools seeking more flexibility in their approach to education.

About a half-dozen states have criteria for allowing for alternative instruction in the case of emergencies, including the use of “blizzard bags” filled with take-home work for students in some Ohio districts.

“There are some legal challenges [in New Jersey] we need to address,” Popoff said. “It is not insurmountable, but it is important how we address them so we have good policy moving forward.“

Pascack Valley officials attended the meeting this week to share their experiences with other districts – and clearly impressed them.

The districts had each been invited based on their previous inquiries over the years about possibly providing alternative means of instruction. Popoff said he figured those districts might be the best candidates to try out some alternative approaches in pilot programs.

Among those on hand was Westfield’s assistant superintendent, Paul Pineiro.

“We are most comfortable with the idea of piloting some things,” he said. “Honestly, we don’t have the readiness to do the things they have done at Pascack Valley. They really have something special going there.”

A big hurdle is training teachers and other staff to be comfortable with the tools and strategies needed, even for just a single day of online instruction.

“We have pockets who can do that, but we’re not comfortable that we could do that across the board,” Pineiro said. “If you are going to do it, you want to do it right.

‘It can just be about assigning homework to do at home,” he added. “Everyone agrees with that.”

Pineiro said his district would probably start with taking smaller steps, such as trying out online instruction with maybe a class or two, or even trying it on selected Saturdays on a volunteer basis.

In the face of the lost classroom days this winter, schools in Randolph in Morris County had already won the state’s approval to use some virtual learning to meet individual course requirements needed to graduate.

The flexibility was there under a decade-old provision in state regulations that allows students to take internships or participate in other out-of-school programs at the end of their senior years.

“It would be more like a college course,” said David Browne, the Randolph superintendent. “Modules will be put together by teachers, and students will have to demonstrate that they have completed the four hours of work required for each day.”

Browne said it was something to think about for other uses as well, including teacher training.

“If we want to add more to their year in terms of professional development, why not do some of it online,” he said. “If it is authentic learning for students, why not for teachers, too?”

The bottom line, he said, is that the advantages of such strategies are gaining traction, and he hopes it won’t just be a matter of waiting for snow days.

“We don’t want good instruction to die at the altar of a warm winter,” he said. “We’d like to be able to do this every year.”

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