Suburban schools turned 'snow days' into 'e-learning days' this week; will that option end?

 
 
Updated 2/1/2019 7:22 PM
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  • George McBride, an eighth-grader from Highland Middle School in Libertyville, bakes a cake as a self-directed learning activity for his school's e-learning day.

    George McBride, an eighth-grader from Highland Middle School in Libertyville, bakes a cake as a self-directed learning activity for his school's e-learning day. Courtesy of Libertyville District 70

  • George McBride, an eighth-grader from Highland Middle School in Libertyville, baked a cake as a self-directed learning activity for his school's e-learning day.

    George McBride, an eighth-grader from Highland Middle School in Libertyville, baked a cake as a self-directed learning activity for his school's e-learning day. Courtesy of Libertyville District 70

  • Gurnee Elementary District 56 students have school-issued iPads that they can use to do work from home when their schools close because of weather.

    Gurnee Elementary District 56 students have school-issued iPads that they can use to do work from home when their schools close because of weather. Bob Susnjara, 2015

Dangerous winter weather closed suburban schools for up to three days this week, but some districts turned snow days into "e-learning days" -- meaning students did work at home and won't have to make up the time later.

Advocates say e-learning keeps kids engaged, and state guidelines call for five hours of work to qualify as a school day. But a plan advancing through Springfield could require students be in the classroom for the day to count, essentially ending e-learning days.

In Gurnee Elementary District 56, administrators implemented e-learning days on Monday and Wednesday. Some students filled out quizzes, while younger ones took pictures of household items and identified what shape they were. The goal was to keep students working rather than just granting them a day off.

"Anecdotally, I've received tons of positive emails from teachers and parents and lots of tweets showing kids doing fun things," Gurnee 56 Superintendent Colleen Pacatte said.

The district is one of three, along with Leyden High School District 212 and West Chicago High School District 94, that are part of the state's e-learning pilot program that started in 2015.

In 2017, e-learning was opened up to other school districts by a change in state law, and many in the suburbs took advantage this week.

Stevenson High School asked students to log on from home Wednesday and complete their teachers' lesson plans. If they didn't have evidence they'd completed the work before class started Thursday, they would be marked absent.

Libertyville Elementary District 70 employed what officials call self-directed learning activities on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, when the schools were closed by snow and then extreme cold. District 70 developed a Choice Board Activity Guide with a dozen or more activities grouped by grades. Among the choices were cooking and reading.

Children, sometimes with help from their parents, can use the guide to select at least three activities to complete within a week. Evidence an activity has been completed, such as a picture of a student building or making something, must be submitted to the classroom teacher.

"There definitely was a lot of collaboration" in designing and personalizing the activities, said Erik Youngman, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Guidelines and an FAQ are posted on the district's website, www.d70schools.org.

"This is something completely new, not traditional," he said.

As students worked at home, lawmakers in Springfield worked on a bill that if passed would do away with e-learning altogether. Members of the Senate Education Committee voted unanimously Tuesday to reinstate a requirement of five hours of direct supervision by a teacher for a day to be considered an instruction day.

State Sen. Jennifer Bertino-Tarrant, a Shorewood Democrat sponsoring the bill, told reporters this week 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" that exists currently because there is no five-hour in-class mandate.

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

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.

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

Pacatte said she hopes lawmakers talk to district officials before they make a decision on the fate of e-learning days.

"I think it's really important that the change in language opened doors for us to be creative and really think outside the box," Pacatte said. "Going back to the five-hour rule would close the box back up a little bit."

• Capitol News Illinois contributed to this report.

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