Virginia Schools Can Now Opt For Remote Learning During Inclement Weather

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Virginia lawmakers insisted there will still be snow days for public school students, though the General Assembly recently passed legislation allowing unscheduled remote learning during inclement weather.

“I have heard this bill referred to as ‘the killer of snow day dreams,’” said Alan Seibert, superintendent of Salem City Schools, during a subcommittee meeting. “That’s not the case.”

Lawmakers passed two identical bills stating school divisions can opt for virtual learning during severe weather conditions and emergency situations that result in the cancellation of in-person classes. Remote learning or distance education is when the instructor and student are separated by location and do not physically meet.

“I would like to emphasize that this is not a bill to eliminate snow days but simply provide some flexibility to school systems,” said Del. Joseph McNamara, R-Roanoke, who introduced House Bill 1790. Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, introduced Senate Bill 1132, an identical bill. The bills had strong support in both chambers, though they each moved through the Senate with unanimous support.

 “As you know this pandemic has made us think outside the box and some benefit has come from this thinking,” said Mark Miear, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in the New River Valley, during the House subcommittee meeting.

Public schools must offer 180 days or 990 hours of instruction each year or receive a reduction in state aid, according to Virginia law. School districts typically build in extra snow days for inclement weather. If those days are used up, schools must make up days to meet the required instruction time. The bills also allow schools to make up missed instruction by scheduling a remote learning day.

Both bills state that no school division can use more than 10 unscheduled remote learning days in a school year unless the superintendent of public instruction grants an extension.

 “I’m really glad that the state is allowing this type of [learning] to happen in the 21st century, because it’ll allow us to be able to have days that actually count toward that 990 hours,” said Max Smith, assistant director of operations at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School in Richmond.

Miear said unscheduled remote learning days will allow the school district to set an end date for the school year and schedule summer programs. Some districts can miss 17-20 days for inclement weather, Miear said. The updated policy will allow for instruction to be “more consistent.”

Moving to online learning during inclement weather will not make up for lost education, Owen Hughes, a permanent substitute teacher at Elmont Elementary School in Ashland, stated in a text message.

“Remote teaching only truly takes place when there is remote learning,” Hughes stated. “This means that if students are disengaged and not learning, teachers aren’t teaching they’re just talking and staying busy.”

Smith said that it will be easy to implement remote learning days because Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School has been teaching students through virtual learning. The school  provided some students with laptops and hotspots if they needed it.

“Now if we hadn’t had an infrastructure in place, it might be really difficult to be able to pull off one of these unscheduled instructional days from the legislation, but we already have the infrastructure in place,” Smith said.

Hughes is concerned some students will not have access to a working internet connection during inclement weather. The General Assembly this session funded the expansion of rural broadband internet access, though it will take a while to implement the infrastructure.

Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, sponsored a related bill. SB 1303 will require both online and in-person learning to become available to students by July 1. The student’s parent or guardian would decide on the learning modality. The bill expires August 2022.

–  Sarah Elson / Capital News Service