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Southwest Minnesota school to test "virtual snow day" plan involving online education

WINDOM, Minn. — While some dread the winter storm season, youths often look forward to snow and cold working to their advantage and having school cancelled.

However, snow days may be a thing of the past in the southwest Minnesota town of Windom, and in other schools across the state, too.

The school district will be performing a test run next week that it’s calling “virtual snow days.” While the school board has only approved one virtual snow day to be used, the technology is already being implemented by other schools throughout the state.

“We’ll be doing a test run on Monday,” said Jake Tietje, Windom’s middle and high school principal. “During that time, the students will be in school, but they’ll just do a walk-through of what a virtual snow day would look like. It’ll also give us a chance to work out any kinks in the program.”

The first virtual snow day will be implemented some time after Jan. 5, when the new semester starts.

Tietje explained that plenty of research and planning took place in establishing the virtual snow day program.

“We did our research right from the start and a handful of schools in Minnesota have attempted this, but the one we looked at was St. Cloud Cathedral,” Tietje said. “They have a one-to-one technology like ours, and so we modeled our virtual snow day off of that.”

The technology is used on iPads for grades 4-12. There is a slightly different setup for students in grades K-3.

“For the elementary kids, the idea for them is they take home fun bingo boards and are required to play four different areas of bingo,” Tietje said. “For example, for physical education, a requirement could be to help your parents shovel the driveway with a smile on your face.”

The fourth through 12th graders will take iPads home, and a program called Schoology is downloaded onto the student and teacher iPads. The course work is tailored to each grade level.

“Every teacher has a Schoology account so they can post assignments with their iPads and students can open the assignment with an app on the iPad called good notes,” Tietje said. “Students can use text boxes to answer questions, or even write with their finger using the app.”

Tietje also explained that students can submit assignments using Schoology, and the high school students have the option of posting comments and having a blog session with teachers. Tietje also said that teachers are incorporating Twitter with the virtual snow days.

“Teachers are using Twitter so when they post to students to read a certain article, the students may be required to either write a blog on their comments about the article or tweet five times and re-tweet twice to a classmate’s response,” he said.

According to Tietje, teachers and students alike are excited about the new technology.

“I’ve asked our teachers to be as creative as they can with this and make the lessons interactive,” Tietje said. “We haven’t heard any complaints so far — but we’ll see how (Dec.) the 22nd goes — but so far it’s been received positively.”

Tietje said it will not completely eliminate snow days at this point.

“We’re not considering this a student make-up day,” he said. “We’re implementing this day for a reason — so teachers can continue with the pacing of their curriculum, and students stay on track and be successful.”

Tietje said if the trial goes well, there may be more virtual snow days in the future.

“I think the school board would be open to consider using more, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” he said.

One problem, however, according to  Windom Superintendent John Landgaard , is that out-of-school connectivity could be a problem for a significant percentage of students.

“Not all of our students have Internet access at home, so consequently we want to be equitable for all of our students,” Landgaard said. “So we have to look at how we would do those lesson requirements.”

Middle and high school students do have iPads to which the programs could be downloaded, but Landgaard said staff would have to figure out a way for students to download the lessons on the device prior to the kids going home.

“We’ve had some preliminary discussions about this and are investigating some options, but we’re not at the level where we can implement it,” Landgaard said.

While Windom doesn’t have the technology yet, Landgaard said it’s the “wave of the future.”

“This can be an advantage for all kids, and I guess it’s the wave of the future in all facets of education and business, so it’s something we need to consider and look at,” Landgaard said.

Erin Trester
Erin Trester is the crime and city reporter for the Daily Globe. She's a native of Lewiston, MN, but moved to Buffalo, NY to attend college and obtained her bachelor's degree in Communications. She started at the Western New York Catholic Newspaper as a reporter in Buffalo, but in October 2013 she returned to her home state to start with the Daily Globe. Most of her spare time is taken up by her 13-year-old thoroughbred named Faith, but some of her other hobbies include reading, fishing and spending time with friends and family. 
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