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2-14-14 Real Time Try-Out: Virtual Schooling for Snow Days
The Record - 'Virtual school' in session today for Pascack Valley Regional High School District

NJ Spotlight - Bergen County School District Puts Virtual Spin on Snow Days

Star Ledger - Schools offer 'virtual classes' to keep lessons on track during snow storms

The Record - Snow day's virtual classroom: Are lessons at home the 'next logical step'?

The Record - 'Virtual school' in session today for Pascack Valley Regional High School District

Thursday, February 13, 2014    Last updated: Thursday February 13, 2014, 7:15 AM



It's snowing today and school is closed, but students in the Pascack Valley Regional High School District won't be sleeping in. They will still be learning - virtually.

District Superintendent Erik Gundersen sent a letter to parents Wednesday saying that the district has petitioned the New Jersey Department of Education to "conduct school virtually via our student-issued laptops."

"I'm confident we can make meaningful educational experiences for kids tomorrow in the event we are closed," Gundersen said Wednesday evening in anticipation that the district would be closed today. A message posted on the district website this morning alerted students that the virtual day was in effect.

Gundersen said the state has been receptive to the idea, but it also wants the district to supply it with specific outcomes that reflect student engagement in order to count the "virtual school day" as one of the mandated 180 regular school days for the year. The decision based on the data could be available within a few weeks.

If the DOE counts it as a traditional day of school, then students and staff would not have to make up the absence during April's weeklong spring break, Gundersen said. If the DOE doesn't, then students still would have to make it up during the vacation. The district has already used up its three allocated snow days for the year, he said.

Gundersen said the DOE is interested in the idea, as the district has been issuing laptops - Apple MacBook Airs - to its approximately 2,000 students in schools - Pascack Hills High School and Pascack Valley High School - for the past 10 years. This also is the first time such an experience would be tried, possibly making it the first school in the state to accomplish a "virtual" day that could have broader implications for teaching. A representative from the DOE was unable to be reached for comment Wednesday.

Students must log into their first class's website - something the students already do daily - around 8 a.m. The teachers' sites will each have an assignment to complete, and the teachers will use different mechanisms to engage the students to mark them as "present" for the class. The students also must communicate with their teachers throughout the day, and the students have the entire day to complete their activities and assignments, Gundersen said.

For example, in one Pascack Valley physics class, students will have to watch short videos, answer questions and complete problems regarding energy. To be counted for attendance, the students must take a photo of their notebook and email it to the teacher on time. For one physical education class, students would be required to complete a quiz on shock and bleeding.

Alexa Hirschberg, a senior at Pascack Hills, which takes students from Montvale and Woodcliff Lake, said the biggest buzz in the hallways Wednesday when they learned of the possible plan was a bit of confusion: Would students have to report online for each of their eight periods, or would they have the entire day to complete all their assignments?

Hirschberg said her peers became more relaxed when they learned that, in fact, they did have all day to figure out and complete their work.

- See more at: http://www.northjersey.com/news/bergen/Virtual_school_looms_today_for_Pascack_Valley_High_School.html#sthash.d56MN7ul.dpuf


NJ Spotlight - Bergen County School District Puts Virtual Spin on Snow Days

John Mooney | February 14, 2014


Snow or no snow, the state law and regulations on school attendance are pretty unforgiving: with a few exceptions, students must be in school for at least four hours a day and a minimum of 180 days a year.

According New Jersey Administrative Code 6A, Chapter 32, “A day of attendance shall be one in which a student is present for the full day under the guidance and direction of a teacher while school is in session.”

But that requirement, not to mention the whole nature of the school day, got an unexpected test yesterday when a Bergen County high school district closed for the winter storm and held a “virtual day” of schooling, with students taking a full day of classes by computer.

Pascack Valley Regional High School District -- which comprises two schools and about 2,000 students -- is one of a handful in the state to use the "one-to-one learning" model.

Every student is issued a laptop -- in this case a MacBook Air -- that is integral to his or her daily instruction. Google documents, Skype, YouTube and Twitter are all commonplace tools in Pascack classrooms, much like textbooks and more tactile materials in more traditional schools.

The only difference yesterday is that the classroom itself was virtual, at least for a day. Starting in the early morning teachers posted assignments, led discussions, and accepted student work from afar.

An English class studied “The Autobiography of Malcom X” with discussions online; a phys-ed class built a lesson on the Winter Olympics taking place in Russia; a photography class sent students out into the snow. Some teachers gave kids the whole school day to complete the work, others held 40-minute classes.

The state’s first one-to-one learning district 10 years ago, Pascack started thinking about this scheme in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, when schools were forced to close. The inclement weather gave them a chance to put their ideas into action.

“A lot of these teachers do the same thing in the classroom, with the only difference being they would not be in the classrooms,” said Barry Bachenheimer, curriculum director of the district. “It was really a chance for our teachers to shine and do some really cool stuff.”

Does It Count?

But does it count as a day in school? That was the question posed to the state Department of Education early in the week when the district started devising plans in the face of forecasts of the impending blizzard. Already having used its three allotted snow days, the district wanted to avoid shortening a spring break or extending into summer.

It approached the state’s county offices and then spoke with Evo Popoff, the assistant state commissioner in charge of innovation. Given the state rules, Popoff could make no assurances, according to Bachenheimer, but said it would be considered if the district could document the education components and value.

“He said he was open to innovation, and he would attempt to clear some of the roadblocks, “ Bachenheimer said. “But he did say there was some exposure for us, as it will take several weeks to decide.”

Efforts to reach Popoff yesterday were unsuccessful, since state offices were closed. But a spokesman for the state Department of Education cited the state laws as being pretty clear, although that didn’t preclude some changes to come. The state needed to be sure that there was a rigor in the curriculum and access to all students, he said.

“New Jersey schools and the New Jersey Department of Education are big on innovation, and, going forward, this is an idea we’d be interested in exploring,” said Michael Yaple, the department’s communications director.

“But before there is any major shift toward this practice, we may need to look at updating laws and regulations on school attendance and the current 180-day-year requirement,” he said. “These laws were established before people imagined virtual learning from home.”

It’s not a discussion that started with Pascack Valley. Virtual learning has been a hot topic in the state, ever since several charter schools two years ago won initial approval to start virtual schools, only to see state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf pull back final approval, citing the same statutory reasons.

Bachenheimer said the district’s administration would meet in the coming days to develop a package it could submit the state to show the educational value of the day.

He said there were a number of measures built into the process to determine if and how much students participated, such as whether they checked into chatrooms or filed documents online. A preliminary count showed attendance was the same as usual, he said.

Certainly, one piece of evidence would help: traffic on the schools’ email network was so busy during the day that the district needed to add servers.

Surveys are also planned of students, teachers, parents, and other community leaders. An active Twitter feed around day -- using the hashtag #PVRVirtual -- showed the wide range of opinions from students.

“This virtual school thing is a lot more legit than I thought,” said one student.

“Never thought I'd be doing math online . . . on a google doc . . . in the comfort of my own bed!!” said another.

Not all took it so seriously, though, some saying it felt like a day off. “The best thing about today is that I got to do my work while catching up on my Netflix,” said one.

Others said there was too much work packed into the day. Added another: “Please tell me this is a one-time thing.”

It might be -- for now. Bachenheimer said the district was unlikely to try it again until it has the state’s imprimatur, and certainly not today, when the snow made a school closing or a delayed opening a possibility.

Bachenheimer also was not one to claim virtual classrooms are the full-time alternative to brick-and-mortar schooling.

“I see it as a continuum,” Bachenheimer said. “I wouldn’t want it all the time, but when there is an extenuating circumstances like this, it can really work.”

With a word of caution, he said: “For a day off, I never worked so hard.”


Star Ledger - Schools offer 'virtual classes' to keep lessons on track during snow storms

By Peggy McGlone/The Star-Ledger The Star-Ledger
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on February 14, 2014 at 6:15 AM, updated February 14, 2014 at 6:39 AM

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more education

As snow and ice storms continue to blast the state, some schools are turning snow days into cyberlearning days.

With online software, creative teachers and advance planning, school officials say a virtual school day keeps lessons on track and prevents Mother Nature from ruining their calendars

"Distance learning is always Plan B. We always prefer to be face to face," Newark Academy Upper School Principal Richard DiBianca said. "But we’ve missed five school days, and at some point, you have a duty to continue."

Newark Academy is among the hundreds of schools across New Jersey that have closed for more than the normal number of days this year and it is only mid-February.

The private school has had five snow days already, and two have been turned into distance-learning days.

"It’s actually more humane to move forward on a day off," DiBianca said. "If a teacher is trying to cover a curriculum in 20 days instead of 25, it’s stressful for the kids," he said.

Delayed openings and canceled days also lead to tests "smashing into each other," raising student anxiety levels.

Most of the schools using distance learning are private. Among public schools, Pascack Valley Regional High School in Bergen County launched a virtual snow day yesterday as a pilot program, hoping the state Education Department will approve it as a substitute for one of the 180 school days mandated by law.

"If a teacher is trying to cover a curriculum in 20 days instead of 25, it’s stressful for the kids."

In Watchung, Mount Saint Mary’s has had success with distance learning, school officials said. Students are reminded to bring books home the day before a predicted storm, and if snow keeps them home, the teachers are ready.

"We want to make sure there are no gaps in student learning," said Lisa Longo Johnston, the school’s communications director.

Teachers use the school’s web-based learning site to present podcasts, online chats, blogs and narrated PowerPoint lessons. All 340 students at the all-girls Catholic high school participate, according to Joan Mruk, chairwoman of the Technology and Media Studies department.

School officials say flexibility is critical for distance learning to work. Teachers need to have a range of activities they can offer, and students have to be given leeway for such issues as power outages or technological breakdowns.

And teachers may have kids of their own off from school.

"They work within the context of home life, of their lives. They’ll say, ‘Go help your parents shovel and then come back in,’" said Margaret Dames, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Newark, which oversees many grammar and high schools that are using technology during bad weather. "They are committed to not losing any learning time."

After the recent snow and ice storms, St. Joseph Regional High School in Montvale is giving a virtual school day a try, said Frank Prior, the school’s director of technology.

"The goal is to give them an assignment that should take a half-hour, to keep them busy between
9 (a.m.) and 2 p.m.," Prior said.

Teachers are asked to post assignments in the morning and to be available during the day to answer emails requesting help. "We are going to try it, rather than lose another day," he said.

DiBianca said teachers are encouraged to make the system work for them.

Some hold real-time Q&As and real-time chats with students, while other post assignments that are self-directed.

"If you give teachers flexibility, it’s a little less burdensome," he said.

"I wouldn’t say we’ve mastered it," he said. "You always want to be face to face, but if you can’t be, it’s the next best thing."

The Record contributed to this report.

The Record - Snow day's virtual classroom: Are lessons at home the 'next logical step'?

Thursday, February 13, 2014    Last updated: Thursday February 13, 2014, 10:44 PM


Pascack Valley Regional High School District on Thursday pioneered the virtual snow day in New Jersey, but similar experiments are under way across the country as this year’s extreme winter weather wreaks havoc with traditional school schedules.

Momentum is building in places like Ohio, where some schools have had to cancel classes for as many as 14 days only midway through winter. The Pascack Valley plan to have snow-bound students do schoolwork at home on their school-issued laptops, first reported by The Record, traveled the nation on websites and newswires and generated discussion as an idea whose time has come.

“I like the idea; it’s the next logical step,” said Mike Polizzi, superintendent of schools in New Milford. “For us, we would do it not because of the weather but for the possibilities it opens up for students.”

There’s nothing new about online distance learning, which has existed for more than a decade, but its use as an alternative to regular classroom attendance is novel.

The regional district, which includes Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills high schools, took a leap of faith in piloting the virtual snow day, hoping the state Education Department will approve it as a substitute for one of the 180 school days mandated by law.

“Our regulations on school attendance were created before the PC was created and our laws were created before virtual learning. However, we do support innovation,” said Mike Yaple, spokesman for the state Department of Education, which is going to assess whether the virtual coursework was as rigorous as a day of actual school.

Erik Gundersen, superintendent of the district, said teachers used a wide range of tactics to connect with students via their laptops — from social networking to live video chatting to discussion boards.

He said he viewed the day as a “great success,” but that a true assessment will be based on data about student learning that will be sent to the state.

“Was it primarily your higher achieving students that really embraced this or was it embraced from all?” Gundersen asked.

Tina Marchiano, who teaches English and theater arts, said that her students appeared to be more involved than usual and communicated with her and each other above and beyond the required one post and one comment.

Marchiano had her students watch two YouTube videos of slam poets and parse them on a discussion board. The online format seemed to widen the discussion beyond the students who usually participate and, at times, allow for greater depth.

“Here, I’m literally able to have every kid participate and have them give their own thoughts,” Marchiano said.

“It just really allows the kids to elaborate.”

The 1,200-student school also got involved on the special #pvrvirtual on Twitter for the day. Gundersen said the Twitter feed showed an “honest perspective” of students’ reactions to the day.

Gundersen said he already has heard from some other districts that might experiment with virtual snow days. He added that while his district has the luxury of being able to offer laptops to all its students, there might be other ways to get around that hurdle.

“We have some creative individuals [in educational leadership] who are going to be able to figure out how to engage students from home with devices they have at home already,” Gundersen said.

Polizzi said his district would most likely consider a BYOD – bring your own device – route in adopting more virtual learning.

Chicago is experimenting with virtual snow days on a limited basis. And in New Hampshire and Ohio, state legislatures and school boards have already made changes to allow for virtual snow days. The programs there are called “Blizzard Bags” because the material to be covered can also be printed out and sent home in a bag for students without access to computers or the Internet.

As the winter storm season has gotten worse, the number of districts in Ohio that have applied to participate has jumped to nearly 300, said John Charlton, spokes¬man for the state Education Department. That number represents about 20 percent of districts in the state and is only expected to increase, he said.

But in New Hampshire, districts are proceeding more cautiously. Todd DeMitchell, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, said issues beyond the technology need to be addressed such as teacher training.

“Teaching online is a different skill set,” said DeMitchell. “To be able to translate success in the classroom online doesn’t automatically happen. … And what happens when the power goes out?”

And while virtual snow days may work in high school, it may be more of a challenge in lower grades.

Back in North Jersey, Alexa Hirschberg of Woodcliff Lake, a student at Pascack Hills High School, spent her morning Thursday figuring out an honors physics problem. For gym, she needed to measure her heart rate after shoveling snow. Then it was back to the laptop.

“It may be ending up more work than school — I’m not sure but it’s a lot of work so far,” said her mom, Beth Hirschberg.

“It’s as close as you can get to being in the classroom,” said John Molinelli, the Bergen County prosecutor, whose daughter Cali is a sophomore.

Jim Kennedy, who teaches science and education technology and is head of the teachers union at Pascack, said the story of the day is that the majority of students diligently logged on around 8 a.m. and were interacting virtually all day.

Kennedy said through a Google Docs discussion, 75 of his 101 kids responded positively about the day, and he is sure more results and reactions will become available in the coming days.

The day also allowed him to hear voices that usually go unheard during the school day.

“A couple kids I didn’t think that would respond did, and what they responded was tremendous,” Kennedy said.

Isabella Tolomeo, a 14-year-old freshman, said she’d be happy if the virtual day meant fewer days on campus.

“It works well because now we don’t have to stay in school longer or have to take off from our spring break,” Isabella said. She, too, thought the virtual day may have contained more work than a usual school day.

Her dad said he noticed there was a bit of initial confusion over the way the day would go, but it all seemed to work out.

“I think that they may have something here, I really do,” said Jim Tolomeo.

Email: alex@northjersey.com and diduch@northjersey.com


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