With e-learning, could the snow day become a thing of the past in the suburbs?

With e-learning an official option, students can work at home, districts can cut makeup days

Could the snow day become a thing of the past? Some suburban educators hope so.

Prompted by a state law enacted in June, some districts are developing plans for teachers to educate remotely when classes are canceled because of snowstorms, extreme cold or other emergencies.

Proponents say electronic learning programs, or e-learning for short, can eliminate the need to add days to the end of the scheduled school year.

The Libertyville-Vernon Hills Area High School District 128 board is among the latest to take the step, approving a plan this week.

The proposal still requires the Lake County regional education board's blessing. If granted, a three-year program would start this winter.

Based on past experience, District 128 officials feel they'll have good results with e-learning.

Libertyville and Vernon Hills high schools held a pilot e-learning day in February. A subsequent survey revealed more than 90% of employees and community members deemed it a success, officials said.

“I believe we will see continued success with the new proposal,” board member Casey Rooney said. “(The program) will ensure the e-learning days are productive, meaningful learning experiences.”

The General Assembly's decision to allow schools to hold e-learning days on snow days followed a three-year, state-run pilot program in Gurnee District 56, West Chicago Community High School District 94 and Franklin Park-based Leyden High School District 212. Teachers and students used texts, online chat rooms and other electronic tools to communicate and get work done.

That's relatively easy to accomplish in District 128 because all students are issued Chromebook laptops for classroom and home use.

Students who otherwise wouldn't have internet access at home are issued internet hot spots.

“For e-learning days to be productive, we have a responsibility to ensure all students have the tools necessary to succeed, including internet access,” District 128's Rooney said.

Under the district's plan, up to five e-learning days would be allowed each school year. An e-learning day would be announced via email as soon as officials decided to hold it — and no later than 7 a.m. that day.

Teachers would develop activities that align to the course curriculum and require approximately 35 to 40 minutes of student learning, the plan states. Teachers would monitor and respond to student emails between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

The needs of students in special-education programs would be taken into account.

Officials in other suburban districts have embraced e-learning, too. Lincolnshire's Stevenson High School used two during the 2018-19 term. Based on feedback from teachers and families, officials kept them as an option for the next three years.

Not only does e-learning have educational benefits, Stevenson spokesman Jim Conrey said, but eliminating calendar extensions ensures activities such as graduation and summer school can go on as scheduled.

The Mundelein area's Fremont Elementary District 79 board has approved an e-learning plan. Wauconda Unit District 118 officials and teachers agreed this month to begin developing a program.

Still, e-learning on snow days doesn't have universal support.

Critics, including some teachers unions, have argued teachers should be present for all instruction. And some parents have said e-learning programs make them responsible for monitoring students' work instead of teachers.

Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 put a twist on the concept last school year by requiring students to do online makeup work in March and April, weeks after classes were canceled five times during the winter.

This school year, District 300 has one e-learning makeup day scheduled, Feb. 28, and it'll be held only if it's needed because of an abundance of earlier school cancellations.

Superintendent Fred Heid is critical of holding e-learning days the same day as campus-closing emergencies. Electronic assignments must be more than busywork, he said, and that re quires more planning than teachers can do before 7 a.m.

Heid also voiced concern about how power outages would affect students' and teachers' abilities to access lessons and communicate.

“Some of those storms last year were so bad that residents lost power for upward of two days,” he said. “And some of those residents included our staffers.”

District 128's plan takes the need for electricity into account. If a service disruption occurs on an e-learning day, students will receive materials when they return to classes and be given additional time for completion. “The 'e' in e-learning should stand for 'emergency,' rather than 'electronic,” District 128 board member Lisa Hessel said.

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Schools now allowed to use e-learning on emergency days

  Providing students with laptops or tablets they can use in class or at home, such as this Chromebook in Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300, makes it easier for schools to implement e-learning programs during storms. Brian Hill/, 2016
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