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In Pa., 'snow day' an endangered species

Pennsylvania has redefined the concept of the snow day, announcing that schools can offer "cyber days" when kids can't make it into the classrooms.

Pennsylvania has redefined the concept of the snow day, announcing that schools can offer "cyber days" when kids can't make it into the classrooms.

In other words, some students can kiss snow days goodbye.

For up to five days a year, the "Flexible Instructional Days" pilot program will allow schools in all 501 school districts, including Philadelphia, to use nontraditional instruction methods, such as cyber school, when bad weather or other emergencies shut down school buildings.

After last winter froze out schools for seven or more days and extended some school calendars into July, some educators welcomed this week's news from the state Department of Education.

"Having been a superintendent through this past winter, this is greatly appreciated," said William E. Harner, superintendent of the Quakertown Community School District.

For nontraditional learning days to count toward the 180 days of school required in Pennsylvania, schools must submit a plan to the state for approval.

The program can be online, off-line, or a combination. However, if the instruction consists of public broadcast or Internet options, comparable alternatives must be available to students and teachers who do not have access.

Lawrence O'Shea, executive director of the Delaware County Intermediate Unit, said last winter's unprecedented volume of snow closings led some school officials to lobby the state to allow cyber school when there is a weather-related emergency.

He said it makes sense when students in cyber schools receive all their instruction online and colleges increasingly offer remote learning. With easy access to the Internet throughout the region, the biggest issue would be making sure all students have access to computers.

"Fortunately, a large number of families do have access," he said.

Lawrence J. Mussoline, superintendent of the Downingtown Area School District, called the plan a "creative way to solve a vexing problem." But he also said that schools must meet 22 state objectives to gain approval and that it would take weeks or even months of planning.

And unless 100 percent of students and teachers have computers, Internet access, and connectivity, "the curricular sequence would be somewhat negatively impacted," he said.

Hatboro-Horsham Superintendent Curtis Griffin said that he planned to explore the idea and thinks his high school seniors have the technology to make it work, but was not sure about the other grades.

But after extending last year's calendar several days - he isn't sure by how many since "honestly, I'm trying to forget last year," he said - he is happy to have another option.

In Quakertown, where every high school student gets a computer and enough extras are available to lend to needy students in the lower grades, "we're definitely going to take advantage of this program," Harner said.

The idea of an emergency cyber day is nothing new to Lisa Hoban, principal of Holy Rosary Regional Catholic School in Plymouth Meeting. Last year, as the second or third - she can't recall which - winter storm bore down on the region, for two days Hoban used the GoToMeeting app, a Web conferencing software, to set up virtual classrooms for students in grades six through eight, all of whom had iPads.

"I think it's awesome," Hoban said of the new program. "This year, I've already been approached by parents who said, 'Tell me how the cyber days are going to work.' "

And if it seems as if kids are losing one of the great joys of childhood, an unexpected day off from school, Hoban said her students loved cyber school. The weather was so fierce they couldn't go outside and play, so they stayed in bed in their pajamas and fired up the computers.

"Based on what I saw, the children were highly engaged. Maybe because it was new; you have to take that into account," she said.