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Education

Cañon City has ruined snow days for kids — but preserved summer break — with e-learning

Lessons are assigned for every class from math problems on school-issued computers to P.E. (shoveling snow counts) for students to learn at home on snowy days.

Kids may get out of school for a snow day in Cañon City, but they don't get out of learning. The district now can convene an e-learning day, with assignments to be completed on the computers provided to students by the district. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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CAÑON CITY — When back-to-back snowstorms led to a rare shut down of Cañon City school buildings for two days last month, the lessons didn’t stop for students in grades 6-12.

In fact, the closures gave the district a chance to try its e-learning days, which the board approved in March as part of the district’s innovative hybrid schedule. 

There were lessons for every class. For gym, students were expected to shovel snow, recording their pulse rate before and after the activity. For choir, they were asked to find and listen to a recording of a work they are performing and note something about it. For most core classes, the assignments were the same as what they would’ve done in the classroom, except they were doing them at home on district-issued laptops.

Cañon City Middle School Principal Jesse Oliver, left, and teachers Brandy Price and Tony Grabau discuss the recent use of e-learning days during back-to-back snowstorms that shut down schools for two days. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Surrounded by four-day-a-week districts, Cañon City Schools alternate Fridays off and early-release Fridays for professional development – essentially a schedule of nine class days over two weeks.

The schedule is intended to help attract and retain teachers without doing away entirely with the five-day week. It adds a few minutes to each school day, but eliminated any cushion for emergency closures, such as snow days.

The district decided to use electronic learning days when buildings are forced to close, which the Colorado Department of Education allows for in its calendar guidance

“Now we don’t have to add days to make up snow days,” said Brandy Price, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Cañon City Middle School.

Seat time is directly tied to funding of public schools in Colorado so counting days, hours and even minutes happens every time weather or other emergencies threaten closure. The ability to call an e-learning day might eliminate some of the consternation with late-night or early-morning conference calls about whether to stick to schedule, call a delayed start or cancel classes.

With e-learning days as a tool, “we don’t have to pull out our calendars at 4:30 in the morning,” said Jesse Oliver, principal of Cañon City Middle School.

When storms hit in October, districts get particularly nervous, because there’s a lot of winter yet to come.

In the 2018-19 school year, 10 districts got waivers from the state for coming up short on hours because of emergency closures, Jeremy Meyer, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Education, said in an email. For a few districts, that was tied to security-related closures in April, but most were weather related.

The state’s guidance for e-learning days is basic: they should be defined in district board policies or procedures; students and teachers must be able to interact; attendance or participation must be documented; and students must have access to electronic devices. It puts no limit on the number of e-learning days.

Some states, such as Indiana and Illinois, have codified the use of e-learning days at the state and local level and have been using them for several years.

E-learning has been normalized in Indiana, where 74% of districts have computers for most students and another 9% have computers for some, said Adam Baker, press secretary for the Indiana Department of Education. As of this year, the state no longer requires districts to submit plans for approval. The state offers training and guidance, including a toolkit for developing an e-learning program and information on best practices.  

“E-learning is just happening across the state so much and so well that we look at it as a normal instructional day,” Baker said. Last year, Indiana tallied 3,804 e-learning days with 2,890 the result of canceled classes. One e-learning day is counted for each school, so if a district has 20 schools, one districtwide closure would count as 20 e-learning days.

Typically, Baker said, districts use four to five e-learning days a year.

Districts are on their own in Colorado

CDE doesn’t track who’s using electronic learning days, and knew of only one district, Falcon School District 49, that had proposed using them as part of an innovation plan approved in 2016.

Website and internet searches on Colorado districts turn up little about e-learning days, and two districts contacted seemed unaware of the option.

Denver Public Schools spokesman Will Jones said in an email that there is no districtwide policy on e-learning days and apparently no schools use them for weather-related closures. Lewis-Palmer School District 38 spokeswoman Julie Stephen said the district has online learning programs but doesn’t use electronic learning in lieu of snow days. The district, along the snow-prone Palmer Divide and Monument Hill, had 11 weather closures last year.

Falcon High School is the only school in District 49 that has used e-learning days, although other schools are considering it, assistant principal Nathan Truex said.

He said they’ve been used on snow days and on testing days where some students are in school to take tests and others are expected to do regular classwork at home. The feedback from teachers and students has been positive, he said, and he’s heard little from parents on the issue.

Falcon High has 1,000 Kindles that students can check out to do work at home, including on e-learning days, and is transitioning to Chromebooks.

Cañon City Schools is issuing Chromebooks to all students, and as of this year all students in grades 6 to 12 have their own laptop, Superintendent George Welsh said. They use them regularly in the classroom and at home.

Students who don’t have access to the internet can check out a hotspot – Oliver said the middle school’s two hotspots always are checked out, but there has not been demand for more.

At schools that use e-learning, students who have technical issues on assignments are given extra time to complete them.

Cañon City teachers and administrators said the recent e-learning days went well.

“Some kids did great, some did OK and some did nothing,” said Tony Grabau, an eighth-grade science teacher. “It was no different than a normal school day.”

E-learning preps kids for the changing workplace

Eighth-grader Oscar Hartman’s two snow days played out a bit differently, but overall he said the schoolwork took him two to three hours each day.

On Monday, he was up early because he had a doctor’s appointment. When he learned about the school closure he started his computer work, went to his appointment and then finished up.

Because the Wednesday snow day was called Tuesday afternoon, he decided to sleep over at a friend’s house. They worked on lessons in the morning together before taking a sledding break and then finished up their school work in the afternoon.

“Now I’m going to sound like a super nerd, but I liked it,” said Oscar, 13. “It was nice to have something to do. It’s a great alternative to having a makeup day.”

Eighth grader Oscar Hartman, dressed up as a “crazy tourist” for his school’s spirit week, demonstrates some of the programs he used to complete lessons during two recent e-learning days for Cañon City Middle School. (Sue McMillin, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The problem Oscar encountered was a bad link to an assignment, which he demonstrated as he quickly flipped through his assignments and an array of online programs. That glitch was quickly fixed with an email to the teacher.

Oscar said students use their computers and the same programs daily in the classroom, so it wasn’t hard to find and complete the assignments.

Price and Grabau said they had no issues posting their lessons to the Schoology site by 8 a.m., as required. They monitored their email throughout the two days, responding to questions from students.

“The kids did a great job of communicating,” Grabau said.

Price noted that the students seemed more engaged on the second e-learning day, perhaps because they realized after the first one that they would be held accountable for completing the work.

Along with eliminating the need for a makeup day, e-learning days give students a taste of what they’re likely to encounter in their future careers, administrators said.

“Technology is part of our modern learning environment,” said Truex, the Falcon assistant principal. “It’s really about what modern work is — you could be working in Colorado but your product could be based in Tokyo.”

Collaboration via technology and telecommuting is increasing rapidly, with about 40% of the workforce working remotely at some frequency, according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com 

“E-learning is a great way to tie the brick and mortar, face-to-face experience with technology,” Welsh said, likening it to practicing for online college courses or future jobs.


Clarification: This story was updated Nov. 11, 2019, at 5:36 p.m. to more precisely describe how many schools in Indiana have issued computers to K-12 students.