The first thing that District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly wants you to know about Alternative Learning Days?
“We all recognize it’s certainly not as good as the kids being here, in front of the teacher. Let’s get that off the plate right away,” Reilly told GLT.
During last week's dangerously cold weather, District 87 canceled school for two days. But not really. They became Alternative Learning Days, a first for the district.
Students and teachers worked from home, checked in with each other. And District 87 got to count those as real school days, so they don't have to be tacked onto the end of the school calendar in May. (District 87 schedules five “emergency” days for those situations.)
But is it the same thing? Should kids learning at home count as kids learning in school?
Reilly said obviously everyone is best served when students are in school with teachers.
“Short of that, doing meaningful learning activities now, as opposed to having to come back in May at the end of the school year, we think can be more meaningful. That’s what we think. But we need to gather some information to help determine if what we think is reality,” Reilly said.
That means surveys. District 87 is sending 10-question surveys to parents, teachers, and students about the pilot Alternative Learning Days.
One of the questions: Should District 87 do this again?
“That will be a simple yes-no question. That’ll provide us with some good information,” he said.
This whole thing is only possible because of the new school funding formula that passed in 2017.
For determining what counts as a school day, the law of the land in Illinois has been five clock hours of instructional time. But that provision disappeared when the new school funding formula took effect, leaving the minimum number of required instructional hours at zero.
And that created the legal flexibility for Alternative Learning Days, known in some districts as Digital Learning Days.
'Watching This Trend Closely'
Not every district did them. Unit 5 notably did not.
"It is important to understand that an Alternative Learning Day means students will be in school one less day," said Unit 5 spokesperson Dayna Brown. "Currently when Unit 5 students take a snow day it is added to the end of the calendar so they do not lose any class time."
Brown added: "In a larger district, developing this type of program properly sometimes takes a little more time. Unit 5 has been watching this trend closely and will make a determination in the future if this is something that will work in our district."
District 87's version was a pilot. And about 1,000 students in the Heyworth school district did three Digital Learning Days last month.
Heyworth Superintendent Lisa Taylor said it evolved pretty quickly as teachers got the hang of it. Many gave their students a menu of options—at-home assignments they could do. That would be watching a video, having someone take a photo of you reading a book, or doing a sculpture.
“There’s a lot of things you can do. In elementary, you can build a fort and then read a book in that fort. So it’s just a variety of activities and then your traditional stuff, which would be logging into web-based learning that we already use and completing activities in there,” she said.
Taylor said her district is already heavily reliant on technology, so it's not a huge adjustment. Most teachers use Google Classroom, and it's a 1-to-1 district where students get their own computer.
But Taylor said they also plan for those without internet access.
“Students who didn’t have access—maybe they were somewhere they didn’t have access, or they don’t have it at home—they have an opportunity to make that up with corresponding assignments when they come back to school,” Taylor said.
Back in Bloomington, it was a mixed bag for teachers. That's according to Joe Lewis, president of the Bloomington Education Association, the teachers’ union for District 87.
Junior high and high school teachers had a smoother experience, Lewis said, because their students are already used to learning technology.
“The elementary (teachers) had a lot more concern about how to get assignments to their students and whether or not they could get feedback based on internet access, whether parents were home, for example,” he said.
Lewis said with even more planning time, teachers could make it an even better learning experience. And yes, of course it's better to have kids in school with their teachers, he said. He sees this as a different kind of tradeoff.
“I see these as doing a cost-benefit analysis and determining whether, OK, we’re going to have a snow day or an emergency day. Is it better to have the student try to do something today, then it would be perhaps to try and have the student do something on the last day of school, an emergency day that was added on?” Lewis said.
Kids may love it, but winter weather school closures can be a headache for parents to have to make alternate child care arrangements, sometimes in a hurry.
“Generally, we had a positive response from parents. But there were some who were disappointed in us doing that for a variety of reasons,” Reilly said. “Some of which relate more to the logistics of trying to help their child if, for example, it’s a single parent who works, or both parents who work and have to provide day care for their children, and they can’t be there to supervise this, it made it difficult in some cases.”
Lisa Taylor in Heyworth is also surveying her parents. So far, she said, it's been overwhelmingly positive.
“What we have said is that teachers will check in at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. via email, because they’re working in between. But some are used to more immediate feedback and response to questions, so some more regular communication throughout the day,” Taylor said. “We got some very good suggestions, like training for parents who haven’t used Google Docs or other platforms their students are used to using.”
But while school districts are trying to figure out if Alternative or Digital Learning Days happen again, a move is afoot to make sure they don't.
Legislation is moving in Springfield that could add the 5-hour requirement back in, as NPR Illinois reported, meaning snow days might be just snow days once again.
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