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Legislature Drifts Toward Allowing Virtual Learning When Snow Shuts Schools

Pre-planned online classes taken from home could count toward current mandate of 180 days in classroom

snow day

When a Bergen County high school district tried to replace a snow day with a day of online learning last winter, the Christie administration rejected a request to have it count as an official school day, saying state law simply didn’t allow for it.

With winter at our doorstep, a Bergen County state senator last week filed a legislative bill that would change that law.

The proposal by state Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Bergen) would effectively set up a mechanism for school districts to apply for permission to use online classes as a fill-in in the case of weather emergencies, which lately have been pressing on school calendars.

Cardinale said the bill is in response to what happened last February in the Pascack Valley Regional High School District, which had intricately planned out a “virtual day” of classes for Feb. 13 in the face of a forecasted snowstorm.

Every teacher led classes from home, as the roughly 2,000 students in the district’s two high schools -- each already provided with laptops -- logged in through the schools’ networks and took dozens of classes through video-conferencing or any variety of platforms available online.

The virtual learning day drew widespread media attention, and officials in other school districts promptly asked Pascack Valley for helping in developing similar programs.

However, despite some words of encouragement, the state Department of Education ultimately rejected the day as counting toward the state-mandated 180 school days, saying it ran counter to the law that explicitly required students be in the school building. The district ended up making up the snow day by taking a day away from spring vacation.

Cardinale yesterday said times had changed from when the 180-day rule was written.

He said saw this firsthand when he visited one of the district’s high schools and saw students taking classes online with teachers and students inside China.

“If we can do this long-range (to China), it can’t be any harder to do it short-range,” Cardinale said. “The fact is, the technology exists in many schools to be able to do this.”

The bill would specifically require the state Department of Education to set up a review process so schools could apply after the fact for such “virtual” days to count as official school days. The process would lay out criteria for approval, such as certain standards that would have to be met for instruction and the rigor of the school work.

The bill also would first require a district to have used up its allotted snow days before applying for permission to have the online learning day.

The bill, co-sponsored by state Sen. James Beach (D-Camden), was referred to the Senate’s education committee.

The superintendent of Pascack Valley Regional was elated that the Legislature was taking up the issue, saying he had heard that there is interest on the Assembly side, as well.

“This is something we had talked about with the department,” said Superintendent Erik Gundersen. “There should be a mechanism in place for schools. It’s nice to see someone is moving forward on this.”

Gundersen said the only thing he questions is requiring schools to first use up their snow days. With the extent of planning involved, Gundersen said, the state should allow districts to have the option either way.

“I’d like to be able to be able to use it for the first day (of snow),” he said.

The legislative process is not always a speedy one, and Cardinale was making no promise of quick passage before this winter. He said he has the support of the state school boards association, but had yet to speak with representatives of the Christie administration or state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the Senate education chairman.

Gundersen said his schools are not counting on the law being changes in time for this winter. Pascack Valley has three snow days built into its school calendar; some school districts have scheduled as many as five snow days, just in case.

But the superintendent said even if the bill doesn’t pass for this winter, he planned to continue testing the idea during this school year, maybe with selected students or classes.

“You don’t get better at it doing it only periodically or haphazardly,” he said. ”We’ll keep doing this.”

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