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No more snow days in Minnesota schools? E-learning may be answer

Debra Kiel1 / 2
Brad Bergstrom2 / 2

ST. PAUL—With a bill introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives that would allow school districts to turn snow days into "e-learning" days, some superintendents say adopting the policy could have a number of benefits if the bill passes.

But it would be important to also consider schools' individual needs when choosing whether to adopt e-learning days, especially in districts where significant numbers of students may not have easy internet access at home.

"I think the idea on paper is something that's very intriguing," said Thief River Falls Public Schools Superintendent Bradley Bergstrom. "But you have to have the accessibility for all of your students, otherwise it separates the 'haves' from the 'have-nots.' "

Under the bill, schools could have students work from home and communicate with their teachers online or by phone up to five days each year. In addition to weather, the days could be used for other emergency school closures, such as illness outbreaks. A number of schools around the state, including those in Farmington and Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis, have already tested e-learning days.

The bill, which was heard before the Education Innovation Policy Committee Thursday morning, would not make it mandatory for districts to adopt e-learning days, said Rep. Debra Kiel R-Crookston. Districts that do would work out accommodations for students who do not have easy internet access at home, such as allowing them to complete lessons on paper.

Bergstrom said he believes that implementing the policy for e-learning days could be a good alternative to extending the school year because of snow days. The district has one day built into the academic calendar to accommodate school closures and makes up any additional missed days. The district has had two snow days so far this school year, Bergstrom said.

"Especially when you start talking about, well, we're going to make up school and we're going to lengthen the school year," he said, "There's question in terms of the effectiveness of that."

Though he said he was not sure of the exact percentage of students in the district living in rural areas, he understands internet accessibility would be an important consideration. Even at Challenger Elementary School building, Bergstrom said, the cell phone service can be spotty, which some people rely on as a primary method of internet access.

Crookston Public Schools Superintendent Chris Bates said an important consideration should be whether e-learning days are as valuable as regular school days.

"If you were going in for an appendicitis tomorrow, do you want a doctor that's operated on people or one that's done it on a computer?" Bates said.

He said about one-third of students in the district live in rural areas, though he believes internet access may not be as large a barrier to e-learning as it used to be.

Bates said he believes the model would be suited better for some subjects than others. He compared the proposed e-learning days to "flipped classrooms," in which students watch a video lesson at home, such as math, and do classwork based on the lesson the next day with the teacher's help.

"Some things I think would be more challenging than others to make meaningful, but certainly math classes, I could see it working really well for them," Bates said of adapting the model for e-learning days. He added e-learning may also work well for activities such as group reading discussions, but not for subjects such as family and consumer sciences or music.

Kiel said she believes schools could benefit from e-learning days in a number of ways if the bill is passed, including reducing lags in productivity following snow days, she said.

"If you had Monday and Tuesday off because it stormed on Saturday and Sunday, Wednesday was almost lost because the kids had to just be brought into the subject matter that has now been not talked about for days. ... For some students, that is a challenge," she explained.

Bates said if the bill passes and Crookston schools do adopt e-learning days, they will have enough time to develop a plan in time for the bill to take effect.

"This is the world we live in now, and it should make a difference to the way we do education and how kids receive it, too," he said.