In the mountains of Eastern Kentucky, Wolfe and Owsley counties' public school districts typically miss more than 30 days a year because of winter weather.
But a pilot "snowbound" program in those counties that is expanding to other school districts for the first time this school year is turning some snow days into learning days.
Daphne Patton, a fifth-grade teacher at Campton Elementary School, said that through the pilot, on at least 10 days that would have previously been traditional snow days, her students were learning online on their home computers. Some students were calling teachers on the telephone to talk about their work. If the main roads were clear, other students were going to school to work in the computer lab or library.
Also, said Wolfe County Superintendent Kenny Bell, "if we can safely get to their homes and the phone calls are not working, we'll go to them and deliver the work to their home." The district is intent on using the snowbound days so it can minimize gaps in instruction, Patton said.
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For the 2014-15 school year, the Kentucky Department of Education has approved waivers that allow Wolfe and Owsley and 11 other districts to use virtual or other non-traditional means of instruction when school is cancelled because of weather or another emergency. In many cases, students will participate in the snow day lessons online.
"Last winter's harsh weather created a significant hardship for both teachers and students alike. Many of our districts were forced to close for several days or weeks at a time, which not only disrupted instruction but also extended the school year for many," Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said in a statement.
"While we hope that this winter will not bring the same challenges, now students in the approved districts will be able to carry on with learning — even when inclement weather keeps them out of the classroom."
Under the waiver, a district can count up to 10 non-traditional instruction days as regular attendance days in its school calendar and not have to make them up. Districts implement the pilot differently.
Bell said the Wolfe County district doesn't use the so-called "Snowbound Pilot" on all school days, just at times when the district is at risk of being out for several days.
The 13 districts that received non-traditional instruction waivers for 2014-15 had to submit applications that described their plans for learning while school was not in session. The applications were scored on teaching methods, equal access to lessons for students without Internet access, staff deployment, community engagement and assessment of students.
This is the fourth year that Owsley County has participated in the pilot, said Owsley County Superintendent Tim Bobrowski.
The premise behind the Owsley County program is that "we don't let our high-risk kids have winter learning loss like summer learning loss," he said.
Owsley County generally uses the snowbound program in January and February, and kids who don't have Internet access do their snow day work with pencil and paper.
This year, students in Owsley County will be given even more flexibility and the opportunity to work on projects at their own pace when the district implements the snow day pilot.
The Kentucky Department of Education monitors how much learning is happening when the program is implemented and will be providing technical assistance to the districts that are trying the pilot for the first time.
"Think about it as a hybrid approach to instruction," said David Cook, the director of innovation and partner engagement for KDE. Cook said districts are designing teaching units so that they can be done face to face or virtually when cold or snow strikes. He said the pilot is not costing districts extra money.
Jessamine County Superintendent Kathy Fields said her district hasn't implemented the pilot yet but that will likely happen on the 10 snow days after Dec.1.
Fields said district officials have met with principals and are explaining to parents how the program will work.
Elementary students will either complete their snow day work digitally or with pencil and paper, depending upon their individual needs.
Older students will be learning online. And if for some reason, weather conditions prevent a student from engaging in snow day work, they can make up that work on the next school day.
"No child will be penalized for not having the opportunity because of weather or family circumstances," she said. "We're absolutely ecstatic to be part of the project because our whole mission is to have continuous learning without regard to weather."