Area schools explore virtual school days


Area students will complete some lessons online at home this year as schools utilize what have been dubbed virtual school days or e-learning days.

The Indiana Department of Education allows local school corporations to use virtual school days for snow makeup days and to offer professional development to teachers and staff. The IDOE began offering virtual school days during the 2016-17 school year.

During a virtual day, students attend class and complete assignments online rather than attending school in the buildings. Whether or not to use virtual days is up to each school corporation. Locally, some school corporations have opted to use virtual days while others have not.

At Northeast Dubois, students and staff at both the middle and high schools are gearing up for a virtual day in October. At those schools, staff will use the virtual day for professional development. The middle and high schools held their first virtual day for professional development last school year.

“I think every teacher wants their students in class,” said Northeast Dubois High School Principal Tina Fawks. “But it’s so hard to get professional development in during the school year.”

For the virtual day, Fawks said, teachers will prepare lessons as if it is a regular school day, then upload those lessons to the school’s online classroom management system. From there, students will be able to access the class content anytime during the virtual school day, earning attendance for the day once the posted activities are complete. Students without an internet connection at home can access the lessons at the library or still attend school that day, but rather than going to class, those students complete their lessons in a computer lab.

It works out for students, Fawks said, because many of them already have some experience with online classes or will need the experience for college classes in the future.

During the virtual day, teachers will complete various professional development activities that are left over from summer professional development programs or that can’t be done over the summer. This year, teachers plan to work on curriculum mapping across grade levels, which helps teachers streamline education year to year. The teachers will also hold departmental meetings during the virtual day, which Fawks said saves the school money. In the past, the school had to hire substitute teachers to cover classes during department meetings.

“It’s not something we’re going to do once a month, but I think to take this day is something we’ll continue to do in the future,” Fawks said.

Southwest Dubois also plans to use virtual days this year. Although the IDOE approved the corporation to use virtual school days for professional development, Superintendent Tim LaGrange said school officials opted instead to only use virtual days for snow makeup days this year.

For winter storms that arrive with advanced notice, he said, teachers will be tasked with planning ahead and “front end loading” their lessons ahead of the storm so students can complete assignments during the snow day rather than having a free day that has to be made up later.

Southeast Dubois used its first e-learning day last year. It was held on a Saturday to make up a snow day, and the schools opened 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. for students who wanted to complete the work in the school buildings. “It went off without a hitch,” Superintendent Rick Allen said.

The school plans to use the same model in the future if needed. As for using e-learning days in place of snow days like Southwest Dubois plans to, Allen said the corporation is still working out how to do that.

“Teachers need some planning time, and for them to be able to switch from traditional lessons to e-lessons takes more time,” Allen said.

At Greater Jasper Schools, school officials are working to get virtual school days up and running. Assistant Superintendent Todd Hitchcock said the middle and high school used a couple last year to offer professional development, but the corporation has yet to implement virtual days across all its schools.

“We’re still trying to figure out what we want those to look like,” Hitchcock said.

This is the first year Greater Jasper has personal technology devices for each of its students, so elementary teachers are still completing professional development trainings about using devices in class. Once that training is complete, Hitchcock said, virtual days could be a viable option for the school.

“Right now, we feel using the built-in snow days is a better way to make up instruction,” Hitchcock said. “We want students on-site.”

At Holy Trinity Catholic School, officials are working to set up virtual school days with the state this year, but the school hasn’t used that model yet.

North Spencer Schools has yet to make the jump to offering virtual days. At the middle and high school level, Superintendent Dan Scherry said, students complete virtual learning activities, but the schools don’t offer full days of instruction online.

Scherry said the corporation is “inching toward” using virtual school days, but struggles with how primary-level students could complete lessons online. At that age, Scherry said, students are learning to read and write, and officials aren’t sure how those lessons translate to online activities.

Southeast Dubois officials could not be reached for comment; however, the corporation did use virtual school days last year for snow makeup days once all the built-in snow makeup days had been used.

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