Superintendents weigh in on e-learning vs. in-classroom learning

When snow days strike, educators have their preferences of what works best

While winter has been mild and spring seems to be around the corner, there still were some inclement weather days for snow, icy conditions and below zero temperatures that shut down school transportation.

In the face of inclement weather, a growing number of school districts have opted to utilize e-learning or virtual learning days instead of canceling classes for a traditional “snow day” off school. The decision to utilize e-learning has sparked debate of distance learning versus in-person learning.

Mendota High School Superintendent Denise Aughenbaugh said there are positive and negative aspects to both e-learning and traditional in-classroom learning for students.

“I do think that in person is always the best quality instruction,” she said. “But, it’s trickier now also because we’re preparing kids for college and career and there’s not many programs out there that aren’t at least a hybrid situation.”

The decision begins at 4 a.m. on those snowy days for La Salle-Peru High School Superintendent Steven Wrobleski. He collaborates with other superintendents and the area township road commissioners to determine what is safe for parents and students in the district. His phone is busy with texts, he said.

“We are in our vehicles driving the roads, so we can see firsthand what the conditions are,” Wrobleski said. “We’re in contact with the bus companies as their drivers are coming in … For L-P we have 198 square miles that encompass our district. A huge number of that is country roads.”

If the weather is an issue, Wrobleski is an educator who prefers in-person learning and would rather the district issue a snow day off school, before implementing e-learning.

According to the Illinois State Board of Education public school calendar guideline, e-learning days may only be used when an emergency day would otherwise be appropriate, but using an e-learning day does not remove a proposed emergency day from the district’s calendar.

“Given the severe impact of the pandemic on student learning,” it said. “Every effort should be made to make up any scheduled instructional days when instruction was not provided for any reason.”

All Illinois school districts are required to have a proposed calendar with a minimum of 185 days to ensure 176 days of actual student attendance, with a minimum of five proposed emergency days, according to ISBE.

E-learning days do not have to be made up. However, when a district chooses to use a snow day, it counts against the district-allocated emergency days and may have to be made up at the end of the year.

Wrobleski said he looks at the five emergency days L-P already has built-in per year and says they are there for a reason. He said he looks at the overall impact of student learning.

“For L-P High School, I look at the number of hands-on learning/handling classes that we have,” he said. “And you know an e-learning day, you don’t have to make that day up … but I have to weigh them.”

“What missed opportunities are they not going to be able to make up if we do an e-learning day.”

Streator High School Superintendent Scott Cameron said he doesn’t use an emergency day for his district unless it is necessary. Streator was one of the first high schools in the region to implement e-learning, beginning before the pandemic.

“We have e-learning put in place for a reason,” he said. “So you can continue the education of the students moving forward. Our staff has their plans in place and our students are aware because they each have one-to one Chromebooks.”

Aughenbaugh said she calls an e-learning day when it makes the most sense the students, facility and staff.

“We always look to see if there could be any kind of outage with electricity, internet network,” she said. “So, as kind of a rule of thumb, if there are strong winds or heavy snow or ice that could be on power lines we call a regular snow day to avoid any outages that would prevent students from having that synchronous instruction during e-learning day.”

Aughenbaugh said she also considers the academic calendar and teacher preparation before making a decision. January, for example, she said requires hands-on learning.

“If a student is in a hands-on woods class, that student needs to learn and pass a safety test,” she said. “So, January is an excellent time for providing that content [snow days] because that is more desk work.”

Whereas the emergency and reserve days that are made up after Memorial Day are usually pure assessments at that point in the school year, she said.

One of the biggest hurdles in virtual instruction is ensuring every student has a reliable at-home internet connection. During COVID, grants were available to ensure schools were able to provide hotspots to students who didn’t have internet at home. Not every district has this resource available.

Aughenbaugh said in Mendota the district identifies staff and students at the beginning of the year that need WiFi hot spots that need to be sent home and the district has a plan in place if a student’s WiFi is down.

“All teachers create a Google Meets and Google classrooms,” she said. “We require that our teachers allow phone-in access. So, if a student as a weak Wi-Fi they’d be able to call in.”

Cameron said Streator also identifies students who don’t have WiFi and who have special hotspot capabilities.

“If for some reason somebody’s internet goes down we have a plan in place where the student in allowed to make up the work,” he said.

Wrobleski said at L-P every student has a Chromebook, but not every student has access to the internet.

In the end, each superintendent has their own opinion about what better prepares their students or what type of instruction they prefer.

Cameron said he believes students are more engaged throughout the year with e-Learning and thus prefers them to emergency days.

“The engagement level of students seems to falter because they are anticipating summer,” he said. “The weather is getting nicer outside. Right now with an e-Learning day, they are able to log on interact with the teacher and get that work toward the end of the school year.”