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District 518 school board committee begins virtual snow day discussion

District 518 administration building. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — The ball got rolling Monday on a potential solution to school snow days — something Independent School District 518 would not likely implement for at least two years, if at all.

District 518 Board of Education Instruction Committee members discussed the feasibility of implementing virtual school days, or e-Learning days, as a solution to keeping students on track without having to tack on additional make-up days following the end of the scheduled school year. Per Minnesota state statute, up to five e-Learning days are allowed per school year.  

“In order to do this right, to be of any value, we’re two years out from accomplishing that,” said Superintendent John Landgaard, citing a string of potential challenges including student connectivity and teacher availability and preparedness.

Landgaard explained that during e-Learning days, teachers load assignments to a website where they’re accessible to students. Then, students can complete their work at home and have their parent or guardian sign off on the assignments.

Teachers, Landgaard said, must be available to students by phone and email during an e-Learning day. The district’s new phone system, which allows call forwarding, may make these days more feasible than when the idea was initially brought forward.

Prairie Elementary students would not count e-Learning days as instruction days, but they should have enough minutes scheduled during the school year to satisfy the state’s requirement without counting those days, Landgaard said.

Potentially the greatest issue is student access to internet connectivity.

Landgaard said the last time the district surveyed its student population’s home access to internet, about 70 percent of homes reported having access. He anticipates that number may be slightly higher with cell phone data plans, but not every student has that access, either.

“I don’t think 70 percent is a high enough (connectivity) number,” said member Linden Olson, proposing a pilot program.  

Another challenge raised during Monday’s discussion was creating assignments for specialty classes like physical education and music.

Virtual learning days are not a new idea, and other area school districts have already implemented them into their scheduling.

Windom Area Schools’ “flexible learning days” and Jackson County Central’s “Virtual Snow Days” are similar to what District 518 is considering. Pipestone Area Schools also began considering virtual learning days last year.

Discussion will continue on the idea.

In other business, the board’s operations committee briefly discussed the levy, which the board tentatively approved at its maximum authority during its September meeting with the understanding it may be further discussed (and potentially reduced) before the December deadline.

Tuesday’s operations committee made no determination as to whether the board will opt to reduce the district’s final levy, but member Stephen Schnieder shared concerns about making such a determination prematurely.

“I’m a little reluctant — since the referendum didn’t pass — to reduce things when we have a whole laundry list of things that are falling apart and need to be repaired,” he said, adding that he’d like for the board to consider what projects it needs to accomplish — and available funding for doing so — before making a final levy determination.

Board member Mike Harberts agreed, and said he’s willing to “play the course” until December.

“However, I’d hate to hit two birds with one stone, because eventually we’re going to pass a referendum,” he said about his caution when considering setting a final levy.

The full board will meet at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday in the high school’s Media Center. A board work session will immediately follow the board’s regular agenda.