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How Weather Forced a Minn. District to Establish E-Learning Options On the Fly

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It's every educator's nightmare: A long-planned initiative gets rushed into implementation before planning is finished.

Sometimes that situation is avoidable—but not for Marshall Public Schools in Minnesota late last year. The district had been developing an e-learning program that would prevent learning from getting interrupted on snow days. Each snow day after the first one of the school year would be an e-learning day, with students completing assignments and communicating with teachers from home.

The plan was for teachers districtwide to do a trial run with students during the regular school day on Nov. 27—until it snowed that day.

After that, district administrators instead asked teachers to devote some time over the next couple weeks to sharing the details of the e-learning program with students. But before all the teachers could complete that task, another round of precipitation closed schools again, on Dec. 9, as reported in the Marshall Independent.

"We wanted to honor the plan that we had shared with families and with teachers," said Jeremy Williams, director of teaching and learning. "That's sometimes how you learn the most when you actually go through and live it."

Education Week asked Williams by phone to reflect on the experience of implementing a program in an unexpected hurry.

What was the original plan for e-learning?

Last school year, the district closed numerous times for snow, but didn't take advantage of the Minnesota state statute that allows for up to five e-learning days.

"Our winter was not good last year," Williams said. "Our plan had been, we'd make up days in the spring, at the end of the year. You think about our high school kids, they end up with make-up days being in a whole different quarter. They end up missing that class. We said it'd be really important for them to have that connection for those days."

Developing an e-learning program that suits all students meant thinking about serving special education students as well as a sizable population of English language learners, Williams said. Though the district has 1-to-1 computing for all grades, students in grades K through 4 don't typically take their devices home.

"One of the big criteria was we don't want anything on an e-learning day that kids haven't already experienced with a teacher," Williams said.

How did you resolve those challenges?

"A lot of discussion went into looking at what other districts are doing. We have a lot of districts that are using e-learning days. We had conversations at professional organizations, what's working for you and not working. We pulled that back to an e-learning day committee."

For special education students, the committee included language in the plan that allowed for case managers to add specialized plans for individual students, rather than imposing a structure for all students with a variety of needs, Williams said. The committee also encouraged teachers to prepare "differentiated lessons" for English language learners. For K-4 students, "we created an activity matrix for each grade level to share assigned work that includes a blend of online and more traditional learning activities for students to access," Williams said.

How did you prepare teachers for implementation?

"We put a presentation together from the district office so each site had a staff meeting talking about e-learning days, laying out expectations and protocol. We have an e-learning page on our website—we shared out the e-learning day plan. All teachers had full access to that. Then we did some checklists for each different e-learning level."

"We also have professional learning communities—there was PLC time dedicated to reviewing those checklists, reviewing their matrices for what goes out to kids, thinking about that lesson planning, what's going to best meet the needs of our kids. They had teaming time to work through some of that."

What was the original timeline?

Once the Nov. 27 trial day was a bust, Williams' team decided against rescheduling a districtwide practice. "We told everyone in classrooms, take time over the next two weeks, walk through expectations, run a class with your kids," Williams said. He estimates only half the teachers got that done before the next snow day on Dec. 9.

How did Dec. 9 go?

All things considered, the day went pretty well, Williams said. But there were glitches.

"We had some elementary classes that didn't have all the data they would need to have at home," he said. "The principal scanned things and emailed them out to parents so they had them, in a different manner than what the original intent was."

Teachers used email, Bloomz, Schoology, and other tools to connect with students. Some were available by phone as well. "For those that were home via phone, we included Google Voice, so they had a phone number they could share if they didn't want to share their personal phone number with kids," Williams said.

Williams said his team is rethinking the amount of work that will be required of middle and high school students during e-learning days. 

How did students and teachers respond?

One teacher said several students called during the day to let her know they were thinking about her, suggesting that the program could benefit from more sustained teacher-student interaction, Williams said.

Another teacher initially wasn't sure what to do because she had planned to give a test that day. Instead, she ended up offering students some spiral review.

Some of these contingencies could have been addressed earlier in the planning process, but the snow day moved up the timeline. "It's a case by case, classroom by classroom conversation," Williams said.

What advice would you give to other educators who have to implement a plan before it's fully ready?

"I really think it comes down to, like most things, open communication. We're going to be open to, if it doesn't go exactly as planned, that's okay. It happens in a classroom every day. What can we do and how can we make the best use of the day that we have?"

Williams said his team will plan for a practice day earlier in November next year: "You shouldn't have snow days that early, but you never know."

Image: m-imagephotography/Getty


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