Morris Area Superintendent Rick Lahn said eLearning was not intended for successive multiple-day use but, sometimes, circumstances change intention.
A Polar Vortex from Jan. 28-31 forced the school district and St. Mary's Catholic School in Morris to halt bus routes and keep students out of school buildings. Instead of taking snow days, the two school had eLearning sessions for students.
And this week, a broken boiler in the Morris Area High School forced the district to use eLearning for students in grades seven through 12 on Feb. 4 and 5 A winter storm also closed the buildings on Thursday, Feb. 7, so the district again used the eLearning option..
eLearning has teachers and students use laptops or similar electronic devices to talk between each other. Morris Area and St. Mary's are in a program which supplies electronic devices such as Chromebooks, which are small computers, to students in upper elementary, junior high and high school. Teachers have younger students do work at home that may not require a computer. Teachers also provide alternatives for students who do not have internet or computer access at home.
Schools use eLearning instead of adding make-up days to the school calendar or converting a scheduled day off from school back to a day in school. eLearning can replace a traditional snow day off from school. Elearning is not typically used for consecutive days away from the school building, school officials said.
Teachers who responded to an email request interview about eLearning from the Stevens County Times said last week's use was successful. The responses were sent before the need for eLearning on Feb. 4 and 5.
"eLearning days for my first-graders has been very beneficial," said Sarah Larson, a first-grade teacher at Morris Area Elementary.
"I would say that the biggest success has been that the number of kids who are getting their work done and turned in is quite high," said Nick Milbrandt, an agriculture and industrial arts teacher at Morris Area High School.
A common comment was that eLearning requires preparation by the teachers.
Teachers completed training in eLearning as part of staff development, said Morris Area School Board chairwoman Robyn VanEps said.
"Implementing eLearning days requires that every student has a personal (computer) device and is able to access a connection," VanEps said. "We make alternative arrangements if students are unable to connect. Elementary grades without the 1:1 ((personal computer) devices have alternate arrangements as well."
"I have a Google Classroom all set up for snow days," said Abby Weick, a fifth-grade teacher at St. Mary's. "The students had log-in information for other resources we use, so they were prepared for eLearning. It has been helpful to have Google Classroom as a hub for our learning on these days."
Caleb Greene, a fifth-grade teacher at MAES, said fifth-graders have Chromebooks so eLearning went very smoothly for students.
Larson and other first-grade teachers at MAES use snow day choices for eLearning.
The choices include three options for math, reading, writing, music/physical activity and family time, Larson said.
"Students choose one activity from each to complete and have their parents initial it," Larson said. The work is turned in when school resumes.
Teachers said they need to communicate with students and, for some grades, the parents, as well. Communication is most often done through email.
Larson emails all of her students' families letting them know of the expectations for the day.
Students also have to be willing to communicate.
MAHS business and career tech teacher Jennifer Maras said her students, "were quick to email me in with questions."
"The technology that we have has made eLearning a way for teachers and students to communicate when they cannot be in school," Weick said.
"Students and parents have emailed me during the eLearning days asking for clarification on assignments. I have been able to assist them through email," Greene said.
What type of school work do students do?
Larson said the first-grade eLearning activities are familiar to students.
"My students know these activities and they should be able to perform them without assistance or issue," Larson said. Some of the activities may require a partner, she said.
"...I create meaningful and creative content for the students, similar to what we truly would have been doing in class on that particular day," Maras said.
St. Mary's principal Joe Ferriero also teaches sixth-garde science. "I was able to give my kids a quiz on Monday. Through a flipped classroom activity, teach them about our new topic and have them follow along while completing an assignment. It rocked," Ferriero said. A flipped classroom means Ferriero taught a lesson that students could watch on a computer. They could watch the lesson and then, complete the assignment.
As a principal, Ferriero is pleased with the eLearning days. "Learning is happening even though we aren't in school. I'm seeing that students are keeping up on their work," he said.
Yet, there have been some hiccups and concerns during the eLearning days.
Bumps on the eLearning road
"Some students don't take Chromebooks home, so I (had) to email their assignments to their parents' email addresses so they can access their work," Greene said. "Parents have been very accommodating during eLearning."
The eLearning days coincided with a change in semester at the high school. Teachers get a new group of students in classes they teach at the start of the semester.
Milbrandt said he had to re-check to make sure he had the correct students in his groups so they received the assignments. "This is obviously not going to be a continuous problem, it was just the luck of the draw this time around," he said.
Ferriero noted some challenges to eLearning during the past week.
"Some students work well independently while others need support from a teacher or parent," Ferriero said. "That can be difficult on (eLearning) days because parents might not be able to sit and help their child and, while teachers are accessible by email, it isn't instant help."
"My only concern is technology can't take the place of a teacher at school working with students," Greene said.
Teachers said they know the success of eLearning depends on how well they are prepared and how well the communication is between them and student.
Larson said while most of the work for first-graders can be completed independently, families have chosen to participate in some learning activities. "I think if anything, eLearning days are a great way for parents to really connect with their children and see what types of things they might be doing on a typical school day," Larson said.
Weick said the eLearning days have been a learning experience for students, parents and teachers.
"I think, looking to the future, this has a lot of potential for us to be able to keep moving forward with our classes while allowing us to not have to make up (snow days)," Milbrandt said.
"... I feel this is an obvious solution for weather-related abscences from school," Maras said.
The teachers said they've found the eLearning option has motivated them to be even more creative with teaching subjects.
"It has pushed me to be more creative and innovative," Maras said.
Ferriero said he planned to meet with teachers, students and parents to get their feedback.
As Lahn said, Ferriero also said eLearning was not designed for use on multiple days.
"We need to look at the data and see what was a realistic amount of eLearning for each student and how we can differenitate when we aren't with our kids," Ferriero said.
The consensus from the interviewed group was that eLearning is a valuable tool that will continued to be used.
"We feel that face-to-face interaction is always the best way for students to learn, however, eLearning days provide an alternative to extra days added to the calendar in June," VanEps said. "This is a good tool for the (Morris Area) district as we are able to keep learning relevant and on track despite the weather."