Two weeks of foul weather set up the New Bloomfield R-3 school district with the perfect storm to try out something new — virtual snow days.
For three days from Feb. 9-11, snow and ice kept students at home. As has always been the case with snow days, this missed learning time will be made up. On Friday, Feb. 12, students made it back into the classroom for learning and Valentine's Day celebrations.
Looking forward at that point, school leaders saw more bad weather on the horizon. When students were sent home Friday, they took the learning tools they would need to learn from home if the weather didn't clear up.
This week, roads were covered and temperatures plummeted. The New Bloomfield schools made the call — students would once again stay home, but this time, class would go on. Tuesday through Thursday were the district's first virtual snow days.
District administrators explained the decision during a New Bloomfield Board of Education meeting Thursday evening.
State law allows for alternate method of instruction days when holding school in-person isn't feasible. But until the COVID-19 pandemic, few took advantage.
New Bloomfield was one of several local school districts that moved to distance learning for short periods this fall due to high case counts and quarantines. Even still, the district wasn't sure it would turn to virtual learning in response to weather.
"We as an admin team felt very strongly that in-seat is always our number one choice," Superintendent Sarah Wisdom said. "At the beginning of the year, we did not want to use snow days as virtual — it really has to be a perfect scenario for us to do it."
Preparing for virtual learning requires at least a day of preparations to send devices and assignments home to students, as well as to get the word out.
With students in class Feb. 12 after three days of lost learning with the potential of more snow the next week, district leaders saw the opportunity to get those preparations done.
"Basically, I met with the admin team last Friday morning and said, 'Do you want to (do this)? This is the time if we're going to try it'," Wisdom said. "We had the time to plan, and everybody was on board so they jumped into action."
Wisdom and school resource officer Nick Jensen delivered Chromebooks and paper packets to students who were absent Friday.
Kindergarten through third-grade students were sent home with paper packets and older elementary students attended class through Google Meet.
Teachers made themselves available for office hours to help any struggling parents and students.
"They really took it to heart that they needed to make sure that they were available for the parents," elementary Principal Jennifer Fletcher said.
Paraprofessionals also sat in on the virtual classes they would normally attend in-person with students.
New Bloomfield High School and Middle School Principal Paul Cloudwright said some teachers even went out of their way to make themselves available on Google Meet on the traditional snow days before virtual learning was implemented.
"I'm singing the praises here for the staff," Cloudwright said. "We're just very lucky to have such a good staff."
Fletcher and Cloudwright said attendance for the virtual sessions was not much lower than for a typical, in-person school day. Students who missed coursework will have the same opportunities for make-up work that would be expected after missing any other school day.
Fletcher shared feedback from a teacher who said it was a positive experience and helpful for ensuring continuity in learning.
Students were back in the classroom Friday.
In the future, New Bloomfield does not intend to switch to distance learning every time it snows.
"I think the public needs to know that every snow day is not going to be a virtual snow day," Wisdom said. "Our problem was with three days last week and a potential of all week this week, we were going to go almost two weeks without instruction for our kids. And that is not OK."
The district will solicit feedback from families.
"We'll send the survey out to parents and we'll look at is this a possibility for the future," Wisdom said. "Like I said, this would be used sparingly. How many times do we get a snowstorm like that?"