State Senate education panel: Digital snow days don't count as class time

SPRINGFIELD - There was general agreement at the Senate Education Committee meeting Tuesday that the definition of a "school day" is changing, but the committee voted unanimously to reinstate an old definition of the term - at least temporarily.

If the bill, which passed on a 16-0 bipartisan vote, becomes law this session, it would reinstate a requirement of five hours of direct supervision by a teacher in order for a day to be considered an instruction day.

Opponents of the mandate said it would limit flexibility for digital snow day alternatives and other opportunities such as apprenticeships or programs for students that have trouble in a classroom environment.

State Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant (D-Shorewood), the bill's lead sponsor and Education Committee Chair, said she understood that more flexibility is needed for school districts and was committed to working toward it. But she warned of the "wild, wild west" created by the repeal of the five-hour mandate.

"Right now a district could choose to have four days of school in a year," she said.

Illinois Education Association lobbyist Sean Denney, a proponent of the bill who represents Illinois teachers, said a trailer bill to last year's education funding overhaul repealed the five-hour mandate, and it was rolled out "without real oversight."

Denney said teachers unions such as the IEA and Illinois Federation of Teachers need the bill to move forward as a negotiating point for future discussions about flexibility.

Representatives of the Illinois State Board of Education, the Large Unit District Association and other public education advocacy groups were joined by Donn Mendoza, superintendent of Round Lake School District 116, in speaking against the bill.

The groups said they had concerns that any step backward could tie up the negotiation process indefinitely, and the bill's effective immediately clause would cause confusion for districts this year.

Mendoza said his district used the flexibility of a state waiver to offer new e-learning capabilities and other innovative programs.

"I understand the request and the idea of having a minimum, but our position is learning shouldn't be tied to seat time," he said. "The one thing I'm worried about is we will lose the ability to take these next steps."

As the committee met, Tri-Valley CUSD 3 in Downs was using an e-learning day to replace what would have been a regular snow day due to the bitter cold.

David Mouser, Tri-Valley's superintendent, has children in the district, and said they spent hours taking part in digital instruction that had been uploaded to the district's website. He said he received several emails or social media messages from parents of students participating in learning on their snow day.

"There's no substitution to being at school and engaging kids in real time," Mouser said. "But after seeing what my kids have experienced today and hearing from parents around the district, you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that going backward is the right decision."

Mouser said a district poll showed most students have internet or cellphone access, but instruction is formative, assignments are not graded and attendance is not taken on digital snow days, so those who lack access are not penalized.

Mouser also noted there was discussion between the local teacher's union and the district, and all of the district employees - even hourly staff - get paid as if it were a regular day.

Despite the dialogue at Tri-Valley, statewide teachers unions fear the absence of the five-hour mandate will give districts uneven footing in negotiations with school boards.

For Mouser, the concern is that days added to the end of the school year will delay a multimillion-dollar renovation project at the district's high school.

"It certainly seems that the learning our students experienced this week was much more effective than a day tacked on to the school year in July," he said.

While there is no immediate clarity as to how long it will take for the bill reinstating the mandate to clear the legislative process, both sides agreed to start negotiations on greater flexibility as soon as possible.

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