Snow forces students into cyber school

Posted: February 20, 2014

Last week, when a foot of snow piled up and kept buses off slippery streets, some schools plowed ahead and stayed open, using the one road that wasn't shut down.

The information superhighway.

Several schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey whose students had laptops or tablets conducted impromptu cyber classes Thursday and Friday, a trend that will only grow as schools continue to invest in technology, educators said.

"This winter is causing a lot of people to go, 'OK, we don't want kids in school till the Fourth of July,' " said Ann Flynn, technology director for the American School Boards Association. "We no longer have a reason not to think that schoolwork can happen remotely."

While other kids in the region might have been sleeping in or playing video games, students at two Catholic schools were in class even if they were still in their pajamas.

At Holy Rosary Regional Catholic School in Plymouth Meeting, principal Lisa Hoban used the GoToMeeting app, web conferencing software, to set up virtual classrooms for students in grades six through eight on Thursday and Friday.

As the storm bore down Wednesday, teachers downloaded the app and told students what to expect. Each teacher set up meetings that students were expected to attend.

Students could see and hear the teachers, and they could all see the first six classmates who signed in, too.

Hoban said a science teacher conducted a Jeopardy!-style review for a test, and students could see the board and hear the answers as each one took a turn.

"It was really fun and just takes the pressure off," said Hoban, who, not surprisingly, was a businesswoman before getting into education eight years ago.

The plan worked so well that the school is thinking of expanding the online snow-day lessons to the fourth and fifth grades, with students using home computers if there is another emergency.

Good feedback

Bill Brannick, principal of Monsignor Bonner-Archbishop Prendergast High School, said students got iPads last spring. So when the school began racking up snow days - it had four to make up - Brannick decided last Wednesday "to jump in and try it," he said.

On Thursday, teachers posted assignments by 9 a.m. and held virtual office hours from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Students had to complete their work by 5 p.m.

Since early feedback was good, Brannick said, they decided to cancel Monday's Presidents' Day holiday and hold a cyber makeup day.

Brannick said they still needed to evaluate participation rates, but parents whom he heard from were happy with the arrangement, and students "really jumped in and engaged in it, although they didn't expect it to be the amount of work they received," he said.

Chris Mominey, secretary of education for the archdiocese, praised the schools as "innovative" and said he would like to expand the program. But that depends on whether state education officials will allow them to count a virtual day against the 180-day minimum that students must be in school.

Tim Eller, an Education Department spokesman, said the answer is no.

"The concern is if all students would have access to the necessary hardware and software, what provisions are made for students with disabilities, and whether there is an integrated approach to providing cyber instruction for all subjects on short notice," he wrote in an e-mail.

'Positive vibe'

Among the schools in New Jersey holding classes by cloud were two Bergen County high schools whose students have had laptops for the last decade, said Erik Gunderson, superintendent of Pascack Valley Regional High School District, which consists of the two high schools.

He said Hurricane Sandy got him wondering whether students could use the technology to stay in school in the event of another emergency.

When it looked as if schools would almost certainly be closed on Thursday, Gunderson sent word to teachers to prepare for a digital day. He also petitioned state education officials to count it as one of their 180 days. State officials said they would look into it.

"There was a lot of energy about it. I was really excited that there were so many people with a positive vibe," Gunderson said.

Some teachers made videos of themselves giving instructions, while students "were working on everything from Twitter to googledocs to learning management systems to old-fashioned e-mailing their teachers," he said.

"Everybody was commenting that it was a lot of work to do that day. Students were working just as hard or harder than they do in school," Gunderson said.

Alexandra Scepansky can attest to that. The Bonner-Prendie senior, 17, said Thursday "was definitely harder than we thought it was going to be." She had assignments in every class, including two essays that she wrote while wearing sweats in her father's office. Most of her friends, she said, barely got out of bed.

Monday was easier just because she had gotten the hang of, well, hanging out at home while still going to school. And it was better than the alternative.

"In spring and at the end of the year," she said, "we're not going to be in school."


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@kathyboccella

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