Will traditional snow days go away in Howard County schools, with virtual learning options? Not exactly.

·4 min read

Sep. 9—A Howard County Public School System proposal presented Thursday plans to use virtual instruction on some bad weather days that would normally close schools for students and teachers.

Under the virtual instruction day plan, three inclement weather days could be repurposed as asynchronous virtual instruction days, meaning students would access and complete work at any time and not attend live instruction with teachers.

There is no plan to use virtual synchronous days, or live online instruction, since not all HCPSS elementary students have access to school-issued devices.

If there is no poor weather that forces schools to close this year, the last day of classes is set for June 13. If schools must be closed due to poor weather, there are five days off built into the calendar, pushing the last day of school to June 21 if all are used.

But, under the proposal presented Thursday, repurposing three days off as asynchronous virtual instruction days would allow schools to end the year on June 15.

The decision on whether to activate a virtual instruction day would lie with Superintendent Michael Martirano, who said he prefers the virtual instruction plan over extending the school year into late June.

"This is something that many states across the nation do," Martirano said. "We've learned our lessons through COVID and the advantages of this ... We're fooling ourselves if we think that high-level instruction is occurring at the end [of the year]. This gives us flexibility."

The Maryland State Department of Education set parameters earlier this year, saying school systems may repurpose up to eight inclement weather days using virtual instruction. At least five of the virtual learning days must include live instruction (also called synchronous learning); the other three may be asynchronous, or use lessons initiated by students on their own schedule, according to the state Department of Education.

HCPSS school board member Jennifer Swickard Mallo said she had heard in recent days from teachers across the county "begging us to basically pass this as soon as possible" since they viewed school days in June as far less educationally valuable.

"Having been ... an educator, parent and a principal, trying to make up time in June is ridiculous," said Genée A. Varlack, a part-time policy specialist who helped to present the plan to the Board of Education Thursday. "To maintain a continuum of learning ... makes absolute sense. Given that this plan is so flexible, you still can enjoy the snow, you still can enjoy the day. You still have time to do a little of both. I see it, personally, as win-win."

Thursday's presentation only outlined logistics for asynchronous virtual learning days, meaning students could access lessons whenever they wished on an inclement weather day, giving them an opportunity to enjoy any accumulating snow.

"There is no timeline for students to complete particular assignments [on a virtual day]," said Ebony Langford-Brown, executive director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, who presented alongside Varlack. "Because there's no touch point during the day with their teachers, what they'll need to do is to complete the assignments, and submit those assignments, so they can get credit."

According to the plan, students would have up to 10 days to complete an assignment given on a virtual instruction day if they lack internet access or other means to finish work that day. Only middle school and high school students would have access to school-issued devices for virtual learning days; students in kindergarten through fifth grades could complete assignments on personal devices or turn in paper copies of work once they return to school.

No new learning materials would be introduced during virtual days, according to staff.

Howard County Times: Top stories

"The work that we give [students], particularly our third through fifth grade ... should be work that they can complete independently," Langford-Brown said.

Board member Christina Delmont-Small pointed out that while the proposal says secondary teachers should use "discretion in assigning assessments" during asynchronous instruction days, it does not outright ban them. Assessments would go against the spirit of allowing students to enjoy the benefits of an asynchronous day in the snow, according to Delmont-Small.

Langford-Brown said that section could be amended if the board wished.

A survey to solicit community feedback on the plan will go online Sept. 12, Varlack said, and remain there for 10 days. There will be no public hearing on the plan. The school board will vote on the final plan Oct. 4, then submit it to MSDE for final approval.