Bergen County School District Puts Virtual Spin on Snow Days

John Mooney | February 14, 2014 | Education
Laptops, Google docs, Twitter, and chat help kids learn from home, but pose a test for state rules

snow day
Snow or no snow, the state law and regulations on school attendance are pretty unforgiving: with a few exceptions, students must be in school for at least four hours a day and a minimum of 180 days a year.

According New Jersey Administrative Code 6A, Chapter 32, “A day of attendance shall be one in which a student is present for the full day under the guidance and direction of a teacher while school is in session.”

But that requirement, not to mention the whole nature of the school day, got an unexpected test yesterday when a Bergen County high school district closed for the winter storm and held a “virtual day” of schooling, with students taking a full day of classes by computer.

Pascack Valley Regional High School District — which comprises two schools and about 2,000 students — is one of a handful in the state to use the “one-to-one learning” model.

Every student is issued a laptop — in this case a MacBook Air — that is integral to his or her daily instruction. Google documents, Skype, YouTube and Twitter are all commonplace tools in Pascack classrooms, much like textbooks and more tactile materials in more traditional schools.

The only difference yesterday is that the classroom itself was virtual, at least for a day. Starting in the early morning teachers posted assignments, led discussions, and accepted student work from afar.

An English class studied “The Autobiography of Malcom X” with discussions online; a phys-ed class built a lesson on the Winter Olympics taking place in Russia; a photography class sent students out into the snow. Some teachers gave kids the whole school day to complete the work, others held 40-minute classes.

The state’s first one-to-one learning district 10 years ago, Pascack started thinking about this scheme in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when schools were forced to close. The inclement weather gave them a chance to put their ideas into action.

“A lot of these teachers do the same thing in the classroom, with the only difference being they would not be in the classrooms,” said Barry Bachenheimer, curriculum director of the district. “It was really a chance for our teachers to shine and do some really cool stuff.”

Does It Count?

But does it count as a day in school? That was the question posed to the state Department of Education early in the week when the district started devising plans in the face of forecasts of the impending blizzard. Already having used its three allotted snow days, the district wanted to avoid shortening a spring break or extending into summer.

It approached the state’s county offices and then spoke with Evo Popoff, the assistant state commissioner in charge of innovation. Given the state rules, Popoff could make no assurances, according to Bachenheimer, but said it would be considered if the district could document the education components and value.

“He said he was open to innovation, and he would attempt to clear some of the roadblocks, “ Bachenheimer said. “But he did say there was some exposure for us, as it will take several weeks to decide.”

Efforts to reach Popoff yesterday were unsuccessful, since state offices were closed. But a spokesman for the state Department of Education cited the state laws as being pretty clear, although that didn’t preclude some changes to come. The state needed to be sure that there was a rigor in the curriculum and access to all students, he said.

“New Jersey schools and the New Jersey Department of Education are big on innovation, and, going forward, this is an idea we’d be interested in exploring,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s communications director.

“But before there is any major shift toward this practice, we may need to look at updating laws and regulations on school attendance and the current 180-day-year requirement,” he said. “These laws were established before people imagined virtual learning from home.”

It’s not a discussion that started with Pascack Valley. Virtual learning has been a hot topic in the state, ever since several charter schools two years ago won initial approval to start virtual schools, only to see state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf pull back final approval, citing the same statutory reasons.

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Bachenheimer said the district’s administration would meet in the coming days to develop a package it could submit the state to show the educational value of the day.

He said there were a number of measures built into the process to determine if and how much students participated, such as whether they checked into chatrooms or filed documents online. A preliminary count showed attendance was the same as usual, he said.

Certainly, one piece of evidence would help: traffic on the schools’ email network was so busy during the day that the district needed to add servers.

Surveys are also planned of students, teachers, parents, and other community leaders. An active Twitter feed around day — using the hashtag #PVRVirtual — showed the wide range of opinions from students.

“This virtual school thing is a lot more legit than I thought,” said one student.

“Never thought I’d be doing math online . . . on a google doc . . . in the comfort of my own bed!!” said another.

Not all took it so seriously, though, some saying it felt like a day off. “The best thing about today is that I got to do my work while catching up on my Netflix,” said one.

Others said there was too much work packed into the day. Added another: “Please tell me this is a one-time thing.”

It might be — for now. Bachenheimer said the district was unlikely to try it again until it has the state’s imprimatur, and certainly not today, when the snow made a school closing or a delayed opening a possibility.

Bachenheimer also was not one to claim virtual classrooms are the full-time alternative to brick-and-mortar schooling.

“I see it as a continuum,” Bachenheimer said. “I wouldn’t want it all the time, but when there is an extenuating circumstances like this, it can really work.”

With a word of caution, he said: “For a day off, I never worked so hard.”