Story by Deb Seminary, contributing writer
What if schools didn't have to worry about making up snow days? That would be a good thing, especially in North Dakota.
When the West Fargo School District calendar committee and curriculum team were working on the current 2021-2022 school year calendar, they wondered if they could take advantage of their new skills for inclement weather days.
“We had gotten real good at virtual and hybrid learning, making sure every child had a device and internet access,” said Beth Slette, West Fargo School District superintendent. “Since the solutions were already there we thought this would be a good plan.”
That plan turns snow days into virtual learning days in the West Fargo School District. Learners start the synchronous portion of the day an hour later than usual, then connect with their educator and/or classmates, depending on their grade level.
“All schools came up with a system,” said Slette. “In the middle and high schools, the educators start their class time with learners, taking attendance and explaining assignments, then the learners are free to work on their own. The educator stays online for the entire period in case someone needs help. In elementary schools, they start the day with a morning meeting, having all learners on-screen so they can interact. Every grade has a guaranteed curriculum and snow day lessons ready to go.”
So far it is working well. While this article was being written, West Fargo schools experienced their second snow/virtual learning day. The virtual option was also used at Cheney Middle School in December when there was a shooting threat at that school.
“I was apprehensive at first, but it went better than expected,” said Krista Hulderman, an English educator at Sheyenne High School. “I was pleasantly surprised at the number of learners that logged in and participated. Our learners are resilient and they have the ability to adapt.”
Parents have commented at how organized the process is and are very pleased with how well everything has been communicated to their children. Learners have expressed appreciation for the opportunity to learn during a snow day, as well.
“We got used to having our devices at home during the pandemic,” said Aly Mackowick, an eighth-grade learner at Liberty Middle School. “I like being able to work on my own, as well as message my educator if I need a little more instruction.”
Audrina Ehlert, another eighth-grade learner at Liberty, agrees.
“I like online school because you can talk to your educator one on one if you need to,” she said. “It is also nice to be at home and get some breaks – it’s not like being at school all day.”
Besides being able to communicate easier with their educators, learners sometimes work with each other on projects, so they get some peer-to-peer connection instead of possibly being at home alone all day.
“We just got the results from a survey sent to get learner, family and educator input, as that is important for evaluation,” said Slette. “The overwhelming majority of families responding to the survey favor keeping the virtual learning days for the next school year.
“I appreciate the opportunity for educators to connect with their learners throughout the day. Sitting in a seat at school is not the only place learning can take place.”
“I'm sure the kids appreciate the opportunity to sleep in or do school in bed,” joked Hulderman. “But seriously, it is nice to be in a district that is willing to try new things.”