Although it was only about sixteen months ago, it’s easy to forget that the winter of 2013-2014 was brutal. In fact, according to Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist at Rutgers, that winter was the seventh snowiest of the past 120 years. Average snowfall around the state was 54.3 inches, which is 28.4 inches above average. School districts rapidly used up allotted snow days, and were searching their calendars to find make-up days so that they could fulfill the state’s 180-day school year requirement.

But in Pascack Valley Regional High School district, which has about 2,000 students in two schools, a novel solution was pioneered: the “virtual snow day,” with students engaging in a full day of learning and school work via their computers.

Decade-Long Preparation

The virtual snow day had its roots in technology innovations that the district had begun a decade earlier. In 2004, the Pascack Valley Regional High School District embarked on a project that has dramatically changed the way education takes place. Since then, our 1:1 Laptop eLearning Initiative provides a district-owned laptop computer for every student and teacher. Coupled with effective and continuous professional development, the district delivers a 21st century education to every student, every day.

For over eleven years, the use of these powerful technology tools, coupled with teacher expertise in delivering education using the tools, has transformed our classrooms, creating a more engaging environment through which students can experience greater involvement in, and responsibility for, their education. The ever-increasing number of web-based resources being used by our teaching staff gives students the opportunity to learn at their own pace, review skills in need of improvement outside of the classroom, and have greater student-to-student, and student-to-teacher collaboration.

In February 2014, with the forecast of a significant weather event occurring in the near future and the district’s three allotted snow days used up, the administrators of the Pascack Valley Regional High School district asked themselves an essential question: Can Pascack Valley create meaningful and continuous instruction for students during adverse weather events, and have it still “count” under state requirements?

These administrators felt that Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 could be run as a “virtual” school day where campuses would be closed, yet a regular school day for students and faculty would continue using the technology and instructional skills the district already employs. The idea of a virtual day had been discussed for more than a year, since Hurricane Sandy closed school for several days in 2012. Our mission and mantra for the day was to have it run “like any other school day, but only at home.”

District administration contacted the Bergen County Office of the Executive County Superintendent to discuss this idea and subsequently a conference call was set up between senior district administration and officials from the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE). The state was supportive of the idea, but said that meeting the legal requirements to fulfill the definition of an official day of school would be a challenge. They agreed that the PVRHSD could pilot the concept, but that the state could not guarantee that the date would be allowed to count towards the “180 day” requirement and subsequently the day might need to be made up at a future date. The district would have to provide evidence to the state after the day was conducted to show that the requirements for the day were met.

Campuses were closed due to the snowstorm on Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014 and the Virtual Day was held. Campuses were also closed on Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 due to additional snow, but a decision was made by district administration not to hold a second virtual day as no decision had been made by the state on the first day.

Results of the Virtual Snow Day

Throughout the district, students and teachers alike embarked on the virtual school day with enthusiasm and excitement. Though we were in uncharted territory, there was a sense of calm as the district had been unconsciously preparing for this for many years. With years of experience using a multitude of web-based interactive platforms in classrooms, teachers and students confidently and effectively interacted throughout the day using an array of tools such as Twitter, Google Docs, Schoolwires, Edmodo, Wallwisher, My Big Campus, Today’s Meet, YouTube, I-Photo, I-Movie, and Screencast-o-matic, to name a few.

Students were expected to log on at 8 a.m. and check their teachers’ websites to learn their activity and assignment for the day. Students were expected to communicate regularly with teachers, and they had the whole day to finish their assignments.

By day’s end students had engaged in an array of activities that included: flipped classrooms (i.e. science and mathematics), screencasting and discussion-board commenting (i.e. social studies), reading, writing, and blogging (i.e. English), voice and video recording (i.e. music and world languages), Skyping (i.e. a guidance office parent conference), and digital photo sharing (i.e. art).

Administrators were able to keep their finger on the pulse of activity by monitoring a pre-determined Twitter hashtag (#PVRVirtual). They also observed and joined conversations in any number of collaborative platforms including Google Docs and My Big Campus.

With teachers taking virtual attendance based on student participation and electronic submission of assignments, the end result was 96 percent participation by students throughout the district. A post-activity student survey indicated that 82 percent of students participating found the activities to be as engaging or more engaging than a regular school day.

Interestingly, several teachers found that they had greater participation levels from some students online than they typically did when the students were in the classroom.

Technical Specifics and Lessons Learned from the Day

All faculty and students in the PVRHSD are issued a 13-inch MacBook Air laptop at the beginning of the school year, which they bring to and from school each day. Machines are loaded with all of the software they need and have appropriate access to the Internet for instructional resources. Having this tool at their side allows the educational process to happen anytime, anywhere, every day of the year. This fact had us thinking the virtual day would be just like any other day. However, despite the overall success of our virtual day, we did have one technical bump on the road, and one major lesson learned.

Email is one method of communication used during a normal school day, with all Pascack Valley faculty and students having a district-issued email account on our server. At any point in time during a normal school day, we will see an average of 30 to 40 percent of people logged into email, and only 50 percent of those logged-in actively using email, all of which our infrastructure had handled without issue. When the virtual day started, nearly 95 percent of people were logged into and actively using email all at the same time, something our WebMail server was not capable of handling. To address this issue in the short term, our network engineer quickly spun up three additional WebMail servers through our virtual server environment. We posted links to these additional servers on our school website, and through various communication channels, word spread and the overload subsided. To address this issue in the long term, we purchased an application load balancer, which acts something as a “traffic cop” to assure no one server ever is overloaded again.

After the day was done, we surveyed students to learn about their experiences of the day, both from the instructional and technical perspectives. Heading into the process, the expectation was students would complain about email, but much to our surprise, that was barely mentioned. The student’s number one issue was our lack of a unified Learning Management System (LMS). They found trying to manage seven different classes, with seven different teachers possibly using seven different platforms to deliver their content quite overwhelming. One student put it best, “My brother goes to college and everything for him is in one place. My dad goes to work and everything for him is in one place. If school is preparing me for college and work, why don’t we have the same experience?”

As a district we realized the students were 100 percent correct. We immediately put on a full court press to select one LMS that the entire district would use. We included administration, faculty, students and technology in the process to evaluate and pilot products. In December 2014, our district selected an LMS that we feel effectively responds to the needs of everyone, most importantly our students. We have rolled out the product and are currently in the professional development phase of the project, with full district adoption to take place September 2015.

State Denial of the Pascack Virtual Day

On the last week of school for the 2013-2014 school year, after multiple presentations and submissions of the evidence of the rigor and depth of PVRHSD’s “Virtual Day” day over a four-month period, the New Jersey Department of Education denied our request to have the Virtual Day count as one of our 180 required days. To protect ourselves, the district had already made up the day during spring break where, ironically, only 73 percent of the students attended.

This said, let’s examine the NJDOE’s rule requiring public schools to be in session for at least 180 days per year to maintain state aid eligibility. This time period seems reasonable in that it allows for significant classroom time, several “breaks,” and a traditional summer vacation. The devil is in the details, however. The problem with the rule is inflexibility. Sure, a 180-day schedule is fine – until districts are confronted with extreme weather, natural disasters, and other situations that force alterations to school calendars. Our schools need amended NJDOE regulations granting flexibility.

While problematic for almost everyone, scheduling inflexibility is also completely unnecessary because alternatives –with an emphasis on virtual school sessions, plus extending certain days to make up for lost instructional hours – have rendered the 180-day calendar obsolete. Most districts build “snow” and professional development days into their annual calendars. But when storms and other situations arise, extra days can quickly be used up and, because of the rule’s inflexibility, what happens next is chaotic. Districts must scramble to extend the school year, trim planned vacation days, or even schedule weekend sessions. This creates a disadvantageous educational environment. Does anyone believe students forced to attend school on Saturday will be in the proper frame of mind for learning?

The current rigidity creates scheduling hardships for students, their families, and district personnel, without offering an educational advantage. Responding to the rejection of credit for the virtual day, New Jersey Sen. Gerald Cardinale and Sen. James Beach submitted a bill – S-2476 – to permit use of virtual instruction in meeting the “180-day school year requirement under certain circumstances,” pending approval by the state education commissioner. The bill was referred to the Senate Education Committee, but no action has been taken.

Everyone seems committed to preparing students to use technology in addressing next-generation challenges, but our state declines to permit virtual sessions which would, of course, allow students to use technology in a next-generation environment. It’s a perplexing response because continual upgrading of communications capabilities has made virtual instruction more accessible and effective with each passing year.

Other States Permit Cyber Days

The rule is even more exasperating because multiple states enjoy more flexibility within their school calendars. For example, Pennsylvania has implemented a Flexible Instructional Days pilot program in all its public school districts that provides as many as five “cyber days” per year for whenever circumstances prevent students from reaching classrooms. Wisconsin’s governor recently signed a bill permitting schools to make up lost time by extending school days, rather than removing vacation time or adding days to the end of the year. And Kentucky now allows districts impacted by severe weather to open for a minimum 170 days – rather than the standard 180 – as long as they extend school days to meet the state’s minimum number of instructional hours.

In addition, both New Hampshire and Ohio have “Blizzard Bag Days” that enable a district to operate in virtual fashion, as long as it has secured advance state approval for a plan to do so, and has a specified percentage of students complete assigned work.

If weather and other factors would cooperate, our public school districts would never struggle to complete a 180-day schedule. But in the real world, conditions arise that demand school calendar flexibility. It’s time for New Jersey to acknowledge that an arbitrary number of school days or pupil contact hours is a flawed policy – it must join those states already utilizing virtual school days.

Can learning occur beyond the classroom, at any time of day? If we believe so, we now have an opportunity to put our belief into practice. Until such a time when legislative remedies are in place, the Pascack Valley Regional High School District will continue to innovate and explore new ways to educate our students for, and in, the 21st century.

The authors of this article include the following Pascack Valley Regional School District staff: P. Erik Gundersen,superintendent; Dr. Barry Bachenheimer, director of curriculum; Paul Zeller, director of instructional technology; Glenn deMarrais, principal, Pascack Hills High School; Thomas DeMaio, principal, Pascack Valley High School. For questions, contact Dr. Bachenheimer.