High School’s Virtual ‘Snow Day’ Still Adrift in State Bureaucracy Limbo

John Mooney | April 23, 2014 | Education
Bergen County district scales back spring break as it awaits decision on whether online learning counts as regular school day

The bid by Pascack Valley Regional High School District officials to make up a snow day with a “virtual day” of online learning has taught them a lesson: Technology may move fast, but state bureaucracy doesn’t.

The Bergen County district had asked the state Department of Education for special approval to allow it to count a Feb. 13 day of online instruction as a regular school day.

Like many other school districts this winter, Pascack Valley had run out of snow days and was hoping to not have to eliminate another day from spring break.

So, in a closely watched test case for schools statewide, the high school district — where every student is provided with a laptop computer — had teachers and students conduct a full day of classes from their homes when schools were closed due to inclement weather on Feb. 13.

But two months later, spring break came and went last week, and the state still had not approved the unorthodox snow day, forcing Pascack Valley to reduce spring break by two days instead of one.

Superintendent Erik Gundersen said he spoke with department officials, including acting Education Commissioner David Hespe, and he was still hopeful that the state would approve counting the day as one of the 180 class days required for all school districts.

State education officials said that they would have to weigh a number of issues in making their decision, from the level of rigor in the classes to the documented participation of students.

“This is really new and innovative terrain for public education in New Jersey,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s communications director.

“We want to be sure that our review of any proposal such as this meets certain key standards, such as rigor in the curriculum and equity for all students.”

Other school districts have since expressed interest in having their own online school days in the future, as well.

“I can’t imagine all the implications involved in making a decision like this — they must be immense,” Gundersen said.

Still, Gundersen said he was a little disappointed that the make-up day couldn’t be saved in time.

“That was the motivating factor for the students and teachers when we did this,” he said.

And it also turned out to be a fuller day of instruction than the make-up day last week. More than 95 percent of students participated during the “virtual day,” the superintendent said, while only about 70 percent made it to school last Wednesday.

“It was by no means absolutely perfect,” he said, referring to the virtual snow day. “But it is potentially a very productive alternative to snow days.”

Gundersen said he still hopes a decision will be made before the end of the school year, maybe allowing the district to take a long weekend — or at least take some satisfaction in the experiment it launched.

“It still will be nice to get some validation from the state,” he said.