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From the publisher: Snow day solution is on the Web

January 17, 2011

Growing up in Alabama, we didn’t get a lot of snow, even during some of the coldest winters.
Sure, there’d be an odd occasion when flurries were forecast. Each time the weather guesser predicted a chance of wintry mix, we’d always eagerly hope for a “snow day” away from school. I remember going to bed many nights hoping for a day spent with snowball fights and hot chocolate, not the daily grind of school. Who cares about make-up days or spring break? We’re talking about a day out of school, building snowmen and sled runs. That was a heck of a lot better than a seven hours spent with calculators and books.
Our dreams were rarely fulfilled.
On Monday, when I opened the Willard windows, I discovered a white wonderful world. Despite forecast predictions of slight accumulation, inches of snow covered the yard and the driveway.
And as I looked at all that snow, I immediately realized one thing: there would definitely be ... NO SCHOOL!
Hip-hip -hoo ... oh. Right. I have to go to work.
Being a grown-up sure can be a bummer sometimes.
Still, my heart was a little tickled to know that even if Catawba County was a big white mess for the working world, there would still be students who wouldn’t have to go to school because of the snowfall. That’s a sufficient substitute, I suppose.
Unless you are an educator.
Just as I joined the region’s school kids in their initial Monday morning snow joy, I suspect reality quickly became big bummer for all the grown-ups running Catawba County’s school systems.
Monday’s excited snow day, turned into Tuesday’s “well one more day wouldn’t be so bad.” By Wednesday, reality of Saturday school set in along with the prospect of make-up days ahead. Factor in a particularly inconvenient time near the school semester’s end, and by the time the rest of the school week was declared frozen Thursday, I think I heard a collective groan from households countywide.
And it wasn’t T-G-I-F.
What if it was different? What if administrators didn’t have to worry about getting in the required instructional days between the days when school must start and end, as prescribed by the N.C. General Assembly and the state’s tourism industry?
Imagine if snow days were just like every other school day: filled with the prescribed hours of instructional — reading, writing and arithmetic.
In Ohio, they are, and with some wise leadership from N.C. lawmakers, maybe it could happen here, too.
This year, the Mississinawa Valley School District in Darke County, Ohio, implemented online classes for snow days. It is part of a pilot program and Kentucky has launched a similar initiative, according to the The Cincinnati Enquirer. In these experiments, teachers instruct students who are safely inside their homes, without facing the danger of icy bus or car rides to schools. Meanwhile, school system administrators have can protect employees’ safety while saving a little bit of time and money spent cleaning up snow around the schools — not to mention the expense of opening and heating the school on a frigid day.
It seems like a simple solution, really. After all, each year an increasing number of college courses are offered online as distance learning becomes a feasible route to higher education. Even some grade-school instruction allows students to connect with educators in far away places. At University Christian High School in Conover, distance learning is nothing new.
Why couldn’t an online system be implemented to solve snow day challenges of North Carolina?
Sure, there are plenty of questions and huge hurdles. For instance, how can educators make sure a student attends an online class?
With the popularity of social networks on the Internet, it is a pretty safe bet that plenty of school students spent a big chunk of this week’s snow days surfing Facebook, Twitter or similar sites. Surely, if the whole world can see that Little Bobby is on Facebook and available to chat, a system could be devised whereby students login and prove their attendance. Why couldn’t there be a method to gauge whether a young person is actively engaged in the online classroom?
Naturally, that is a simple solution to one of the more simple challenges in implementing online classes at grade school levels. The biggest hurdles come in the form of technology. Not every Catawba County home has a personal computer or Internet — yet. New technology would also be needed on the school side: computer hardware and software that can turn the classroom — or a teacher’s home — into a broadcasting center where lesson plans can be administered over the Web.
All of those leaps in technology require money. When the state of North Carolina is already facing an estimated $3.7 billion shortfall, the prospects of new funding for new programs in the schools are slim.
Still, when you consider that this week, students in the Hickory Public and Catawba County school systems missed five days of class time — not to mention losing a the same amount of scheduled “off days” — it is pretty clear that a 21st century solution is required for this age-old problem. Again, factor in the expense of operating buses, as well as the schools, on cold winter days, and online learning could do more than save the school calendar — it could save money for the school systems and the state.
North Carolina has long prided itself on being the education state, and snow is nothing new here. Chances are winter snow is an issue that won’t even melt from the Carolina climate. That’s why it is time for lawmakers to work on finding solutions to the puzzle created by required school instruction time, protected summers and winter weather.
In the 21st century, lawmakers, as well as school system superintendents, must explore financially feasible ways to ensure that young people receive a quality education essential to successful lives — even on snow days.

Michael Willard is the publisher of and a columnist for The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the weekend edition.

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