ROCKFORD — On the morning of Jan. 30 — when most area students were enjoying one of the region’s many snow days this winter — Boylan Catholic High School junior Katie Milos rolled out of bed, opened her laptop and logged in as “present” for her school’s very first e-learning day.
It was a brand new experience for Milos and her nearly 800 classmates, all of whom have Chromebooks that they already use throughout the course of a regular school day and at night to do homework. The only difference on Jan. 30, Milos said, was she “attended” all of her classes wearing sweatpants instead of her plaid skirt uniform and didn’t leave the house as the temperature outside began a two-day descent to a record low of minus 31 degrees.
Boylan joined dozens of other schools across Illinois when they held “school” Jan. 30 and Jan. 31 … and Feb. 7 … and Feb. 12.
Illinois’ e-learning door was flung wide open last fall when the Illinois State Board of Education released its interpretation of what constitutes a school day under the state’s new evidence-based funding act. The new act does not require schools to be in session for a minimum five hours of instruction to be counted as a school day, giving schools the flexibility to deliver education as they see fit with a greater emphasis on competency and mastery.
But not all schools were ready to walk through that door. The new rule raises a number of concerns over equity and access issues, especially in larger, poorer public school districts that haven’t been able to make the leap to 1:1 — the point at which every student in the school or district has a laptop computer and internet access.
The concerns have become so great that discussions already are underway in a state Senate Education Committee to reinstate the five-hour direct supervision rule.
Meanwhile, schools across the state who tried e-learning days in the place of snow days this winter are praising the option as a way to keep students learning and progressing toward their goals even when they can’t physically be at school.
School days tacked onto the end of the school year do little to help students prepare for quarter grades, standardized state tests or Advanced Placement Exams, officials said — all of which students will face in the coming months and long before the bulk of make-up days.
“A lot of our upperclassmen will go through AP testing in early May,” said Boylan Principal Chris Rozanski. “Every class, regardless of academic level, values its time with kids and values the curriculum covered. Keeping the learning continuous was certainly one of the reasons we wanted to do this.”
‘A normal school day’
Area schools have seen an unusually high number of snow days this school year.
At last count, most have canceled school because of snow, ice or frigid temperatures about six or seven times. They are required to make up five days. Many do so by adding days to the end of the year.
Boylan had three snow days before Jan. 30. Since then, it has replaced snow days with e-learning days four times.
“Initially, we saw this as an ability to maybe try it one time in January,” Rozanski said. “We had no idea that we would have four e-learning days in less than three weeks.”
The school just recently reached 1:1 status last fall, Rozanski said, without which the e-learning days would be difficult to manage.
For one class, Milos said, she joined a web-based chatroom with her teacher and classmates and she listened as her teacher reviewed topics for an upcoming test. Milos said she and other students could chime in at any time and ask questions. For other classes she watched videos that her teachers had prepared and completed assignments based on lessons from the videos.
“I opened my email and I had a bunch of different emails from my teachers with specifics on what I had to do,” Milos said. “All of my assignments were laid out. Teachers were available from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. … I started around 9 a.m. and was done by around 3 p.m. It was no more or less work than a normal school day.”
Milos, who plans to take two AP exams in May, said she appreciates the school’s efforts to keep her on track.
“The teachers were able to still give us the information that we would have gotten in class so we wouldn’t fall behind,” she said.
Only a handful of other area schools held e-learning days this school year. Most of them are K-8 parochial schools that feed into Boylan. They, too, have done so on snow days.
As it stands, schools are required to have 176 instructional days a year. Private schools like Boylan must meet that standard, as well, to be recognized by the state.
None of the region’s large public schools have instituted e-learning days. Most are talking about it, increasingly so as snow days pile up.
“It’s much more typical to have one or two snow or ice days a year,” said Rockford Superintendent Ehren Jarrett. “Seven is pretty high up there for us. … This has been the most challenging winter season I’ve experienced as an educator.”
Rockford Public Schools has roughly 28,000 students.
While Jarrett likes the idea of e-learning days and the ability to deliver education in new and innovative ways, he doesn’t see his district being able to do so anytime soon.
“We’re not in a position yet where there’s equity in device access,” he said. “I don’t want to create an inequity or perpetuate an inequity where students who have Wi-Fi access and home computers or better access to technology can get an experience that another students can’t. I have to be confident that it’s equitable before we roll it out districtwide.
Meanwhile, Jarrett said, the district is looking at adopting a late-start day.
“There were probably one or two days where we could have salvaged part of the school day if we started later,” Jarrett said. “We’re working with our transportation department to develop some late-start options where we’d start school an hour or two later rather than cancel.”
Several schools in the region use later start times during bad weather to avoid canceling school.
Over in Belvidere, Superintendent Dan Woestman said e-learning days may be something the district tries to do in the future.
Freeport, Harlem and Hononegah school districts are talking about it, as well. Private schools across the region have been having discussions, too.
All of Belvidere’s middle and high school students have laptops that the school provides. At the elementary level, students in fourth and fifth grades are 1:1, but students in K-3 are not.
“We’re in a great position to try this in middle school and high school, but not in our elementary schools,” Woestman said. “In terms of making up a whole day, like a snow day, we feel like we need to do it as a whole system and not just our middle schools and high schools.”
Woestman said there are number of instructional concerns that the district would want to hammer out, as well.
“From an instructional standpoint, one of the things we didn’t feel good about was the ability to continue to use the teacher as a resource throughout the day,” he said. “We felt like we could do it with high school students, but we’re not there with elementary.”
Jason Blume, Harlem’s director of stakeholder engagement, echoed Jarrett’s concerns about students’ access to technology.
“We want to ensure that all students have the same learning opportunities,” Blume said, “And unfortunately, not every student has the same access to technology. We plan on looking into opportunities available to every student.”