Virtual learning 'invaluable' for Jamestown schools with inclement weather
The Jamestown Public School District will still prioritize face-to-face learning.
JAMESTOWN – Virtual learning has proven to be “invaluable” for the Jamestown Public School District during the winter with multiple inclement weather events, but the school district will still always prioritize face-to-face learning, according to Superintendent Rob Lech.
“I don’t think anything can replace face-to-face learning,” Lech said. “I think we know that. We had a long experiment with that in the (coronavirus) pandemic.”
The school district used virtual learning days Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, April 4-6, because of inclement weather when a winter storm dropped 12 inches of snow on Jamestown.
While the school district prioritizes face-to-face instruction and the make-up days as the best method to maximize learning, virtual learning may be used when storm days are not available and/or the timing for weather events allow, according to the district’s virtual learning guidelines. The virtual learning guidelines account for different types of learners and their various needs and support.
“Virtual learning guidelines for elementary and middle/high school students have been established that recognize virtual learning is not the most efficient model for instruction,” the guidelines say.
Jamestown Public School Board President Heidi Larson said virtual learning allows students to still learn this winter when there have been consecutive days with no face-to-face learning.
“I can’t speak for the board but what I can say is as a board, we’ve had discussions about this and in-person learning is still preferred over virtual learning,” she said.
Lech said the guidelines are “very reasonable” for students, parents and teachers and address some of the concerns with virtual instruction.
Lech said it was a “no brainer” to hold a virtual learning day on Wednesday but the school district wanted to exercise safety rather than make a risky decision for Tuesday and Thursday.
He said at 6 a.m. on Tuesday, a blizzard warning was in effect for the Jamestown area and school district officials knew roads would be passable that morning.
“But our concern was getting kids home,” he said.
Lech said the school district decided to have a virtual learning day on Thursday because about 25% of students and 25% of staff would not be able to get to the schools because of road closures in the area.
“We knew we could get some kids to school (Thursday) and we knew that we could get some staff to school,” he said, “but then our balance was what is the better option? Having everyone involved in virtual learning or having some involvement face to face?”
Lech said there are many factors that go into making a decision to hold a virtual learning day when inclement weather is expected. He said the decision involves talking with meteorologists, checking weather forecasts, the timing of a storm and looking at road conditions.
“We aren’t loose with the decision whether to have school or not have school,” he said. “ … We know that when we have virtual learning or a grace day that that impacts the business community. … There is just so much that goes into the decision and is one that we take with a lot of care. We know that we don’t make the right decision all the time, but we make the best decision we can with the information that we have at the time.”
Lech said the school district has three options when there is inclement weather: use a grace day when there is no school or rescheduling a make-up day, use a virtual learning day or reschedule it into the district’s calendar. He said the school district prioritizes face-to-face learning and will use a grace day for the first inclement weather day.
“That’s just historically what we’ve done,” he said, referring to using a grace day. “That’s been allowed by the department for many, many, many years and we’ve done that in Jamestown as well where the first day can be considered a grace day so we don’t make up the first inclement weather day.”
He said the school district uses storm days on the second and third days of inclement weather and after that it will look at the rest of the options remaining — using another grace day or a virtual learning day or making up the day at another date. He said the school district has two storm days allocated into its calendar.
“For us, two storm days have been historically more than enough,’ he said. “In the last two winters, we’ve needed more days, but traditionally, two has been enough.”
A virtual day fulfills the school district’s requirements the same as face-to-face instruction would. Lech said a law passed by the Legislature in previous sessions allows the school district with passage of policy to replace face-to-face days with virtual learning days in situations when there is inclement weather.
“When we submit our school calendar (to the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction) a virtual day will be marked as a virtual day but it will count the same,” he said.
Lech said virtual learning is better than having a grace day when there is no instruction. He said virtual learning is a nice bridge when the school district isn’t able to reasonably have face-to-face instruction.
“But, it can’t replace face to face,” he said.
The virtual learning guidelines outline expectations for teachers, students and parents, Lech said. The guidelines say attendance is based on engagement in activities and reported on the next day school is in session.
Lech said families can expect videos and activities for all classes to be available at 10 a.m. during virtual learning days which allows families and teachers enough time to prepare. He said the activities can be completed at any time during the day because the school district is aware that families have different schedules during inclement weather days.
“Our focus at the elementary level is in reading, writing and math although there are times when they might deviate from that a little bit just depending on what’s best for a class or teacher’s instruction,” he said. “Then we expect something in every class for secondary (students).”
The school district mostly uses Schoology, a learning management system, for virtual learning days.