Snow-day alternative creates new challenges

AP News
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Posted: Dec 01, 2014 4:43 AM

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Public school students in 13 districts across Kentucky will be home schooled — mainly via the Internet — during some snow days this year as part of an experiment aimed at keeping students learning amid the growing number of weather-related closings.

The state's solution has caused a new set of challenges for some districts in one of the country's most impoverished areas. Some students don't have computers or home Internet access. And the school district might lose some state and federal aid.

Nonetheless, the snow day problem is too significant for Kentucky to ignore. Schools across the state had nearly four times as many snow days last year as they did the previous year. Some districts canceled school for more than a month.

To make that time up, schools had to cancel spring breaks and shorten summer vacations, creating low attendance days that hurt their state funding. The legislature had to pass an emergency law letting five districts cut their school years short.

Educators fear they might face a similar problem this year. Some schools have already used snow days.

Coping with fierce winter weather by teaching over the Internet has become more common in recent years, but it's harder in states like Kentucky, which ranks 46th out of 50 states for availability of high speed Internet. The problem is most pronounced in rural counties, which is why the state is moving forward with a $200 million plan to lay 3,000 miles of fiber-optic cables.

Still, Kentucky appears to be the first state to tackle the problem on a statewide basis, said Kris Amundson, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education.

"Everybody in the world is struggling with the same issue ... and the early cold weather here now is, I think, making people feel even more of a sense of urgency about it," Amundson said. "I think people will be really happy to let Kentucky go first and see how it works."

Thirteen school districts are part of an expanded program allowing students to complete assignments from home either by downloading them or working from packets prepared and sent home ahead of time. In exchange, the state will forgive up to 10 makeup days.

"If you could make this work, you would never have a snow day," said David Cook, director of innovation and quality management for the Kentucky Department of Education. "You would just have kids doing this kind of instruction and learning anytime you have snow."

Schools in Owsley County, where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, missed 30 days because of snow last year. Owsley officials say they embraced the program because interrupting schooling takes a disproportionate toll on high-risk students.

"It is going to impact us more if we don't do something." said Tim Bobrowski, the county's school superintendent.

As part of a pilot program last year, Owsley schools did not have to make up 10 of its 30 snow days because its students worked from home. But there is a tradeoff.

Districts that opt to use the home school option would lose state transportation dollars and federal money for free and reduced lunches. Losing those dollars would hurt in a state that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says has cut K-12 education funding by 11.4 percent since 2008, among the deepest cuts in the nation.

Bobrowski hopes to keep some of that aid. Though school buses might not be able to ply all the county's side roads to bring kids to school on snow days, education officials might still be able to deliver meals to the students at some central locations, such as community centers, he said. He has asked the federal government for permission to be a bit flexible with the meals.

"Instead of doing a breakfast and a lunch, we may do a lunch and a supper," he said.

Christian County Public Schools missed 17 days last year because of snow, but Superintendent Mary Ann Gemmill said she opted not to participate in the snowbound program because not enough students in the district had access to the Internet.

"We just felt like that would best be done through technology, and quite honestly we don't have the capacity at this point to offer that to all of our families," she said.

Owsley County is fortunate, Bobrowski said, because 88 percent of its students have Internet access from fiber optic cables laid by the local electric cooperative. The remaining students would get the prepared snow day work packets.

In Grant County, where 84 percent of students have home Internet access, officials worry they might not have it on a snow day. They hope the packets will help those students.

"Sometimes students on snow days aren't staying at their house. They may be going to a day care or an aunt's house that may or may not have (that) capability," said Jennifer Wright, assistant superintendent for Grant County Public Schools. "We want to make sure that we provide the materials for each student of what they would need."