Remote curriculum changes nature of snow days

January 16, 2019 Cranberry Local News

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When the snow starts falling, some kids in Butler County sprawl in front of the television.

Others, however, slump into their home computer chairs with a sigh. Their snow days come with a load of online homework.

Both modern and old-school takes on snow day policies are practiced in Butler County, but it’s unclear which will prevail into the future.

In the Seneca Valley School District, the county’s largest, administrators joined in a small state pilot program in the 2014-15 school year. Since then, the district started using what’s called flexible instructional days, or FIDs. They still have built-in snow days, but they only do two a year before turning to FIDs.

Teachers in the district prepare FID curriculums ahead of time. When such a day is called, students awake to find assignments on an online portal. The teachers still work, but rather than meeting with students face to face, they field phone calls and emails from any children that need help.

This program, according to Superintendent Tracy Vitale, brought both difficulties and advantages.

Parents were given the gift of consistency. With FIDs to lean on, the school’s planned calendar can be much more reliable, Vitale said, and out-of-state graduation guests appreciate it. Students entering the military shortly after graduation also appreciate the stability, she said.

Weather, after all, doesn’t tend to behave in this region.

“When you have to cancel school because of diesel fuel freezing up, this is a real benefit to have,” Vitale said.

Having the teachers come up with a handful of remote curriculum sets, Vitale believes, is a good exercise.

“It forces teachers to think deeply about their instruction,” she said. “It really increases their pedagogy: How do I deliver this information in a different way?”

On the other hand, there wasn’t much of a blueprint to work from in establishing the program.

“It has been a lot of work to build something like this from scratch,” she said. “What has helped us at Seneca Valley is having very strong infrastructure in our technology department.”

A pilot program

Vitale believes her district contributed some valuable information to the state’s pilot program. Parents in her district wanted the days to be used only in emergencies after regular snow days had been exhausted, a suggestion she said the state was happy to learn. Each participating district, of which there were about a dozen last year, designed its own FID implementation in their applications.

When applying the district had to detail how to make the process equitable. Students who don’t have the technological means at home to do the work are given 10 days to make it up, just like regular absences, and teachers make sure any needed arrangements are made. Special processes are in place for special needs students.

The days are rare by design. In four years, Seneca Valley has only had four, and one of those was pre-planned so that students, teachers and parents could wrap their heads around the concept.

This year, they’ve closed schools just once, so they haven’t needed to employ an FID yet.

However, it’s possible that this will be the last year the district is using the program, unless things change on the state level. Seneca Valley received an extension to keep its program going through the end of this school year, but not all participating districts were allowed to. The pilot program ended last school year for those without extensions.

Vitale said she hears that Department of Education staff are looking to the state legislature to codify the snow day system before continuing.

All the limitations on FIDs mean that districts like the Butler School District haven’t been able to participate.

Traditional snow days at Butler

Butler Superintendent Brian White said the pilot program was already running when he started at Butler. He looked into it a little, learned that they could no longer join and moved on to other business.

The idea, though, attracted him.

“I liked it because it allows you to keep instructional momentum going when you’re losing time,” White said. “Particularly if we have a harsh winter.”

Butler, the county’s second-largest district, still uses a traditional snow day structure. Three make-up days are designated ahead of time. If more are needed, the calendar extends into summer break.

School districts must have 180 instructional days.

Aside from FID, White doesn’t see any major switch ups on the horizon for how Butler, or most other school districts, for that matter, get to 180.

“I think our school calendars in Pennsylvania are just very traditional,” White said. “The main question I generally get is ‘When does summer start and when does the school year end?’”

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