Will suburban schools opt for e-learning on snow days?

What if instead of snowball fights and tobogganing down sledding hills on a snow day, students could use those hours more productively learning in an online classroom?

That's more than a rhetorical question under the state's new school-funding law, and a series of programs are planned to discuss such ideas.

The new law lets Illinois school districts explore blended learning opportunities and other creative ideas to determine what constitutes a school day based on what improves student learning.

"Each district now can (decide) locally how they want to define an instructional day and what does it look like," said Tony Sanders, chief executive officer of Elgin Area School District U-46. "The exciting part is there is no structure the state is saying you must abide by. In the midst of a blizzard, there are high school districts that are able to do online learning as part of the (school) day. Maybe we could have (U-46) high school students make up their time online."

Administrators at the state's second-largest school district are starting to have conversations about possible variations to the school calendar. Among the challenges is working with the district's six different employee unions to revise contracts stipulating a minimum number of working days.

"We also want to be mindful that any change we make will affect families in our district," Sanders said.

The Illinois State Board of Education recently issued guidance encouraging school district leaders and teachers to come together and create new ways of teaching and learning.

The Evidence-Based Funding for Student Success Act, which became law Aug. 31, 2017, changed the basis of state funding for schools to student enrollment rather than attendance. Previously, Illinois School Code defined a day of attendance as a minimum of five instructional hours.

"Time in a classroom is not as important to us," said Scott Rowe, superintendent of Huntley Community School District 158, which has blended online learning at the high school level. "We are trying to shift our thinking to be more outcomes-based. We only have 174 days to impact our students, and this is our opportunity now to really break down the walls. ... School can happen (anywhere) and learning can happen at any time."

A logical first step is taking advantage of snow days by providing e-learning opportunities to keep students engaged, he said.

"We should be pushing and challenging ourselves to evaluate schools in a different way ... for us, our community values the innovation," Rowe said.

Some lawmakers who supported the school funding law and teachers unions have voiced concerns about changing traditional school days.

State officials are hosting a series of Q&A sessions in December for educators, parents and district leaders to learn more about this new provision. The only suburban forum is from 4 to 6 p.m. Dec. 6 at the DuPage County Regional Office of Education, 421 N. County Farm Road, Wheaton.

Elgin Area School District U-46 CEO Tony Sanders
Huntley Community School District 158 Superintendent Scott Rowe Courtesy of Huntley Community School District 158
  Kids enjoy a day off of school to go sledding at Sunset Meadows in Arlington Heights on Monday. Bev Horne/
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