Cyber School Not a Fix for Snow Days

Cyber School Not a Fix for Snow Days
Alan Wilbourn

Students may love nothing more than a snow day.

Who wouldn’t want to stay home, maybe go sledding at the neighborhood park and sit around watching TV all day?

But for parents and schools, snow days are a lot more problematic.

A school district such as West Fork in Washington County, which had 18 school days erased by winter weather so far this year, has found that making up for lost time takes some doing. State law requires students to attend 178 days with a minimum of 360 minutes of instruction during each school year.

West Fork teachers voted to make up five days by having school during spring break and to extend the school year into early June, said Superintendent John Karnes.

West Fork is one of at least seven school districts that have applied to the state for a waiver because of snow days. Karnes said his district applied Wednesday for a waiver for any future cancellations because the school plans to make up the missing 18 days — fully a tenth of the school year.

Catholic schools in the state experimented this winter, on a limited basis of one or two days, of using “cyber days” to replace weather-wrecked school days. But public school officials said there are many logistical and economical obstacles to home computer days.

For one thing, it is not currently allowed by law, and officials with the Arkansas Department of Education said they know of no move to allow computer-based teaching to take the place of snow days.

Karnes said it would be difficult for the West Fork School District because many of his students don’t have access to the Internet or even cellphone reception. “I’m not saying it’s not an option in the future,” Karnes said of computer classes. “Access is certainly a hurdle we’d have to deal with.”

Vernell Bowen, the superintendent of the state’s Catholic school system, said about 10 of her 28 schools tried computer class days this winter. She and her staff reviewed each lesson plan before it was posted online — she said students without Internet access were given hard copies — and the overall response was positive.

“There were some grumbles from parents who said, ‘Snow day should be fun day,’” Bowen said. “It’s only one day. After one day, students are bored to death.”


Bowen said she is reviewing the results of the trial and plans to submit the information to the Arkansas Nonpublic Accrediting Association’s board of directors in April. Bowen said her principals came up with the program since the Catholic schools hadn’t built any snow days into this year’s schedule.

The association’s board would have to approve the use of cyber days for future use.

Bowen said her instructions to the principals were that the cyber day lesson plans couldn’t be busy work or new work that had to be taught. She was pleased with the results, saying it was a continuation of blended learning that the schools use in classrooms anyway. She said that one kindergarten class in Paragould had a teacher use the Face Time app to have her students read to her while students were homebound.

“We liked it,” Bowen said. “It’s something we’re going to investigate. You have to look at what you already have, and you need to think outside of the box and think, ‘Where are we going in the future?’”

Officials at some of the state’s larger school districts said that a home computer class day was a great idea in theory but not practical at the moment. Fayetteville’s Alan Wilbourn, the district’s public information officer, said the district could only do it if it could guarantee access to all students.

“The technology is not in place to do it,” Wilbourn said. “Not all of our students have access, and that’s the biggest hurdle. Distance learning was all the rage a few years ago, and it never really caught on like the predictions.”

Beth Stewart, assistant superintendent of the North Little Rock School District, said state law will require schools to offer at least one class online starting next year, but that’s a far cry from having an entire day.

“It’s not a bad idea,” Stewart said. But “what do you do with students without access? It’s not undoable, but that’s a pretty expensive venture.”

If school is canceled because of an ice storm, there is the chance that the same weather knocks out electricity at homes. Bowen said the Catholic schools prepared for that by sending lesson plans home with students after learning bad weather was coming.

Wilbourn said all school districts look for “creative ways” to make up school days. Most school districts allot “makeup days” in their schedule to be used if needed, he said, but it is generally only two or three days.

Districts such as West Fork couldn’t prepare for 18 days, of course. West Fork, and other rural districts, often have weather cancellations even after nearby schools reopen.

Bowen said cyber days, or something similar, would be another tool for schools to use.

“We’ll continue to evaluate,” Bowen said. “Until we get to the point where we get really good at it, I would limit the days. Nothing takes the place of the good teacher in the classroom.”