Experience with Virtual Snow Days Helps NJ School Prepare for COVID-19 Closures

At Pascack Valley, learning from past lessons with winter white-outs gives school leaders critical guidance when planning for possible health-related shutdowns
Credit: rj california via Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-2.0.jpg
Virtual learning

A slew of snowstorms in the winter of 2014 and fewer and fewer snow days to accommodate them led the district’s two regional high schools to devise a plan where every student would work remotely from home, linking to lessons and assignments by computer.

Flash forward to a new challenge with the outbreak of the coronavirus, and everyone is calling Pascack Valley for both lessons and limitations.

The state last week cleared the way for districts in the case of a health emergency to close their doors and teach students remotely, all counting toward the 180-day minimum that makes up the academic year. School closures have begun elsewhere, and most agree they are all but inevitable here.

Virtual learning déjà vu

“We are certainly looking to help others as much as we can,” said Barry Bachenheimer, Pascack Valley’s director of curriculum and instruction. “We’re still as busy as ever with everything else, but there certainly is a feeling of familiarity to it. This is not our first rodeo.”

By most accounts then and now, that first “virtual day” in 2014 and three subsequent ones since have proven a success. The state at the time did not sign off on them as the full equivalent of a school day, at least as defined by state law and code, but the reviews were positive from both students and teachers, officials said.

For one English class, school that day included online discussions of “The Autobiography of Malcom X.” A photography class was assigned to outdoor shooting. Schedules varied, too, with some teachers keeping it to 40-minute classes, others offering the whole day to complete the work.

“Students and teachers both agreed that being in school with physical interaction is ideal, but most felt that virtual instruction was a solid alternative and a valuable experience, given the likelihood of doing some sort of distance or virtual learning in higher education,” said Paul Zeller, the district’s director of technology.

“We also learned that we need to have a balance of simplicity, flexibility, and meaningful work for students,” he said in an email. “Giving a pack of worksheets or watching a video for an hour really helps no one.”

Yet for all the promise of Pascack Valley’s experience, those test cases also come with lessons about challenges, especially if virtual days become long and widespread.

Flattening the laptop learning curve

The biggest consideration is that Pascack Valley for 16 years has been providing laptops to each of its students for use both at home and in the classroom, a luxury not every district can afford.

That gave the district and its teachers an immediate head start with remote instruction, officials said. They’ve already been using videoconferencing and file-sharing tools like Flipgrid and Padlet, for example.

“None of this was very foreign to what we are already doing in the classroom,” said Bachenheimer, who was with the district in 2014 and ever since.

Attendance was promising, as about 95% of students participated. But the district did not face the pushback that would surely have come if younger students were required to participate. This also holds for parents who needed child care.

Even with its track record, the district is fine-tuning its plan in the event of a closure. The state Department of Education has required that for a school’s virtual days to be credited toward the 180-day minimum, it must have its plan approved by the state’s county offices beforehand. The school closure itself also must be ordered by the local health official.

For instance, Pascack Valley officials said they will include measures to address the need to deliver food to students, especially those who qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. The same holds for those who may not have Wi-Fi available.

The state’s guidance requires that “equitable access to instruction” is critical for all students.

“All boards of education should develop a school health-related closure preparedness plan to provide home instruction in the event of such a closure,” reads the latest guidance.

“Each preparedness plan should also address the provision of appropriate special education and related services for students with disabilities and the provision of school nutrition benefits or services for eligible students,” the guidance also explains.

Bachenheimer adds that he hopes the public doesn’t come to expect this approach as a long-term answer.

“The single best way to learn is being with the teacher in the classroom and making those connections,” Bachenheimer said. “(Remote instruction) is a good adjunct and supplement, but it doesn’t substitute for a teacher in the classroom.”

<This story has been updated to give the correct attendance rate (95%) for the schools’ “virtual days,” which was earlier misstated.>

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