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Virtual learning bill

Jordan Mikkelson, left, and Wyatt Limesand, fifth-grade students at Louis L’Amour Elementary School in Jamestown, testify in support of legislation they helped to formulate to the House Education Committee of North Dakota State Legislature on Jan. 23. With them is Rep. Bernie Satrom, R-Jamestown, who introduced the legislation as HB 1170. Courtesy / Eddy Delzer

Louis L'Amour Elementary School students who took an idea from the classroom all the way

to the North Dakota State Legislature will find out Monday if it passes a scheduled House vote.

House Bill 1170 would allow school districts to enact a virtual education plan for students and teachers to hold online classes from home when schools are closed on bad weather days. It would negate the need for makeup days to meet the minimum 175 school days per year.

The House Education Committee by a vote of 11-2 sent the bill with a do not pass recommendation to the House. But legislator feedback was positive on the concept, said Rep. Jim Grueneich, R-Jamestown, who introduced the bill with fellow Republican Jamestown lawmakers Rep. Bernie Satrom and Republican co-sponsors that included Rep. Craig Headland, Montpelier, Rep. Don Vigesaa, Cooperstown, and Sen. Terry Wanzek, Jamestown.

The concept was supported but there was debate over the required 95 percent student participation with virtual learning on a school closing day, Grueneich said. The percentage is for calculating state aid payments that waive a makeup day, he said.

Satrom said HB 1170 would establish a pilot project to give school districts the choice of adopting a virtual learning plan or not. The idea is a work in progress and will take time to shape into something that works for everyone, he said.

"The concept was never intended to replace school days or replace the valuable instructional time that a teacher provides a student in a one-on-one environment," Satrom said. "It was intended to give schools an option to make up inclement weather days just as we currently have via virtual instruction."

Around 40 fourth- and fifth-grade students of Louis L'Amour were invited to the Capitol in Bismarck on Jan. 23 to see the bill debated in the House Education Committee. The bill emerged from Kristy Landenberger's class at Louis L'Amour, where students wrote the virtual learning bill to better understand the functions and process of the three branches of government. The students wrote letters to their legislators explaining the idea and their offices helped to fashion HB 1170, she said.

"The kids really learned about the process," Landenberger said.

Jordan Mikkelson, a fifth-grader and member of the school's student leadership committee, testified in support of the bill with classmate Wyatt Limesand.

Jordan said the idea came from a Scholastic News article about how virtual classes are changing the idea of traditional homework. The article said teachers instructed students via an audiovisual connection and are able to share files and other documents, she said.

"It's not unlike Snapchat," Wyatt said. "Most kids have a phone, iPad or some type of device they can use to access the internet or can use their parents computers at home."

Kirsten Baesler, state superintendent of public instruction, also testified in support of the bill.

Jeff Fastnacht, assistant superintendent of the Mandan Public School District, said he applauded the work of the students and that Mandan Public Schools already provide students with personal devices and uses an online learning management system. But he opposes HB 1170, he said.

The problems with HB 1170 include the 95 percent participation requirement, but it also doesn't consider homes with multiple children who share one or a few devices, he said. Students requiring specific instructional support, interventions and services also need to be addressed in the bill, he said.

Aimee Copas, executive director of the North Dakota Council of Educational Leaders, said the Louis L'Amour students did solid work and she supports the positive intent behind HB 1170. The bill as written, however, creates potential inequities with students without access to internet or devices, the 95 percent participation requirement and how school districts not equipped to implement a virtual learning plan can participate, she said.

"Even the best idea always needs to be investigated from all sides," Copas said. "Sometimes a great idea can be made better through investigating both the positive and the possible negative."

Robert Lech, superintendent of Jamestown Public School District, said the Legislature has other bills related to school closures and will determine which ones best suit the needs of students.

"Even if this bill doesn't pass, I believe that their testimony has made an impact and could possibly even influence other legislation on how the school day is defined," Lech said.