Graves: In-person school carries an invaluable gain

To date, Mitchell has never substituted a day of school for an e-learning day, but we have prepared for that possibility.

Joe Graves
Joe Graves

When Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen coined the term and explored the realities of ‘disruptive innovation,’ the corporate world quickly took notice.

By providing actual examples of how small but innovative companies could gain a tiny toehold in a marketplace by serving ignored customers and needs, then improve their product over time until they replaced the corporate giants who once dominated the field, he offered a cautionary tale for the big boys and hope for the rebels.

In education, one example of a disruptive innovation was believed to be virtual school or e-learning, providing schooling through technology to students not physically present in a school building. There is no doubt that virtual schools have made tremendous progress in the education marketplace, in any number of formats.

E-learning, on the other hand, has struggled quite a bit more than many of us had anticipated.

Though there are no universally accepted definitions for all the different terms for these types of educational delivery systems, I think of e-learning as providing instruction over the computer to students who are temporarily away from the classroom setting.


The Mitchell School District had been doing some of this for a couple of years before the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the use of SWIVL cameras, teachers recorded lessons which could then be viewed by students who were ill or away for extracurricular events.

Watching your American history class during the long bus trip to play Rapid City Central was not as good as actually attending class but it was better than the old standard — "borrowing a classmate’s notes."

Then the pandemic hit, and the 2020-21 school year saw significant numbers of students staying away from school due to quarantines, parental concerns about viral transmission at school and of illnesses.

Now the SWIVLs and other technologies were employed to have students attend virtually in real time. This proved difficult because the increased workload it imposed on teachers became unsustainable. Thus, we don’t do much of that anymore and it is the very rare case — e.g. a student hospitalized for a long course of treatment — in which most schools would employ it.

One use of e-learning that has caught on in many schools, though, is its use to replace a day of school missed due to weather. This seemed reasonable, and we began working on how to offer instruction via technology on some days when weathers kept school buses off the road.

To date, Mitchell has never substituted a day of school for an e-learning day, but we have prepared for that possibility.

And while I am not precluding the possibility that we will ever use one in that manner, I will say that I have very much soured on the idea. When the idea of an e-learning day as a way to ‘have school’ rather than call a snow day first occurred to me—or perhaps I had read about it somewhere—I instantly worried that it would become a crutch, an easy way out.

People who have never been a superintendent, or made the sketchy decision to marry one, may not understand that making a weather call can be very stressful. The call has to be made by a certain time and weather fronts are notoriously unwilling to arrive or not arrive based on our bus schedules.


There are few things worse than calling off school and then watching the sun rise on a beautiful day. There are even fewer things worse than sending out the buses and watching true South Dakota winter weather descend. Thus, calling an e-learning day becomes an easy way to have school without having school and escaping a long night of stress and sleeplessness — which may not seem like a big deal, but the value of an e-learning day is not even close to that of a day in school.

As I speak with out-of-state relatives and friends with children in school and hear reports of e-learning days multiplying like rabbits at even the hint of inclement weather and e-learning days which somehow pack the full school day into 30 minutes of instruction and a few stale worksheets, I can only shake my head.

I won’t say never but I’ll definitely say not yet.

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