by NATHANIEL NELSON
Last weekend, Winona and the rest of Southeast Minnesota and Western Wisconsin was hit by yet another blizzard, this time dumping more than a foot of white across the county and rendering many roads impassable. For many school districts, that meant another snow day in a year filled with them. Some schools, including Rushford-Peterson Schools and Cotter High School, have turned to e-learning to help soften the blow, while other districts are planning to add it in the coming years.
E-learning, or electronic learning, is broadly defined as the use of technology for effective learning. For school districts, this can mean using online forums, apps or websites to merge technology with curriculum or, in the case of school closure, creating a form of digital classroom for students to continue their education while they are at home.
The Rushford-Peterson School District (RPS) has been utilizing e-learning days for the past three years to combat the impact of Minnesota’s wildly unpredictable weather. Superintendent Chuck Ehler explained that e-learning is a way for teachers to continue education throughout the year, even if students can’t necessarily make it into the classroom.
“It creates consistency in the classroom,” Ehler said. “Even though the weather can impact our learning at school, we can facilitate getting information out to our families and students so we can maintain what is happening in the classrooms.”
At RPS, e-learning days begin at 9 a.m., when teachers are required to upload assignments to Google Classroom on which their students must work for the day. For younger students, these assignments can be fairly simple –– math problems, reading assignments, or even just going outside and playing in the snow.
“Middle and high school are more academically appropriate [for e-learning],” Ehler said, with assignments taken directly from in-classroom work and sent out digitally. Assignments should be designed to take 30 minutes each, Ehler explained, and teachers must be available until 3:15 p.m. to answer questions or concerns from the students. Students can also call in absent just like any other school day, and follow the make-up policy used.
While e-learning does help students continue their education even in the midst of a blizzard, there are some difficulties that come up. For one, what if a student or family doesn’t have access to Internet?
“For those families that do not have Internet at home, [teachers] are required to contact the home and call with the assignment. We have a built in failsafe,” Ehler said.
It’s not an end-all be-all option, either, Ehler explained.
“Face time with a teacher is paramount for students, and I’m not saying it’s a replacement for a teacher by any means, but it’s a way for us to say ‘you have the ability to continue teaching what you want your students to learn.’”
This year, RPS has had eight e-learning days during inclement weather; however, not all of those days will be counted as in-school instruction days.
“The state of Minnesota allows districts to have five of those days to count as students attendance days. Anything beyond five does not count,” Ehler said. “However, we continue to use the e-learning venue as a way to continue learning.”
Cotter High School in Winona has only been using e-learning days this year and, unlike other districts, there was no long-term planning process. Sister Judith Schaefer, president of Cotter Schools, explained that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision.
“After about the 100th snow day,” Sister Schaefer joked, “we knew we had to think of something.”
In reality, Cotter began implementing e-learning after the first five snow days of the year, with four days used so far. Dubbed “flexible learning days,” the program runs similarly to RPS’ version –– assignments are uploaded online by 10 a.m., and teachers are required to be available between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to help students out.
“It has been going really well. Students appreciate it because it keeps them on task, and the teachers have been really willing to do it,” Sister Schaefer said. “The benefit that we find for students is it keeps them engaged in their subjects. I’ve talked before about the ‘summer slip,’ and the same thing happens if they have a long weekend, or a snow day. They get out of sync with their classrooms. Even with one or two activities, it keeps their heads in the game.”
Cotter is in a unique situation compared to other schools. If it falls behind in school days, it can’t add on any to the end of the year –– many of the students are from different countries, and need to leave just as school gets out.
“We can’t add it on on the end, because we have students who are from out of the country,” Sister Schaefer said. She explained that administrators have considered using Easter break or spring break to cover any more closures. “We’ve also talked about looking at adding time on in the morning. That’s less helpful. We don’t have any other days to choose from,” she explained.
The school has one more e-learning day prepared if things go south again, but in the past, there have been snow days as late as May, so Cotter will have to be prepared for the worst.
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) has also been feeling the chill lately, but unlike its peers, the district has not utilized e-learning yet, but that’s not to say it’s not on the docket.
“We currently don’t have any e-learning policies, but we are looking –– in the wake of the crazy weather we’ve been having –– at how we are implementing it into the classroom,” explained Maurella Cunningham, director of learning and teaching at WAPS.
It’s not that technology and e-learning practices aren’t used in the classroom. For several years, students in grades seven through 12 have been provided with one-to-one devices that can be used at home and at school. Teachers use apps and instructional software to assign students work both in and out of the classroom, as well as for more individualized learning.
“Learning can be more personalized, and collaboration [can occur] in the classroom on forums, where students have contact with each other virtually if they don’t have the opportunity to be together,” Cunningham explained. “It’s an anywhere, anytime learning environment.”
However, despite the devices, the district has yet to implement any kind of e-learning protocol for school closures.
“It would definitely help with maintaining student learning progress and minimizing interruptions in instruction time, and reducing the number of make-up days,” Cunningham explained. “Very often, days added at the end of the year or in place of spring break are not well attended. Classes aren’t reaching their full potential for academic learning to take place.”
With a district the size of WAPS, that implementation will take time. Cunningham explained that administrators have begun talking about how to introduce e-learning into the district, but to do so, there are multiple kinks that will need to be ironed out in the form of curriculum, requirements, responsibilities, and communication.
“One of the challenges would be to make sure the implementation plan of the e-learning policy involves everyone –– teachers, students, administrators and parents,“ Cunningham said.
“After the last bout of inclement weather we are looking at what other districts have done. There’s a lot of work to be done before we adopt an e-learning policy,” she added.