West central Minnesota schools face planning with limited e-learning days, seemingly endless snowstorms


— E-learning days are intended to keep schools operating during bad weather.

They give students meaningful assignments and access to their teachers to keep learning when they can't get to school. Unlike snow days, they don't have to be made up at the end of the school year.

In an ordinary year, the five days of e-learning allowed by the state of Minnesota could be plenty.

However, with the snowy beginning of this winter, some school districts have already used their full allotment. Willmar Public Schools, New London-Spicer Public Schools and DREAM Technical Academy in Willmar are among them.

Other districts in the area have used three or four days already, with several months of potential blizzard weather still to come.

Traditional snow days could be the rule for bad weather this winter and spring, something many adults remember fondly.

Weather and road conditions vary from one district to another, and not all districts choose to use e-learning in bad weather, so each district's situation is different.

Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa has used no e-learning days yet.

Superintendent Patrick Walsh said the district will use an e-learning day on the next snow day. The district will make up a previous snow day and plans to use another e-learning day if needed.

Willmar Superintendent Jeff Holm said the district will use its previous snow day practices for the rest of the year. Students won't have assignments, and teachers won't be on duty. Employees, without work assignments, could lose pay on snow days.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that the weather is going to be great for the rest of the school year," Holm said in an email, "but if that's not the case, we would ask our school board to make the final decision on whether or not to make up any additional canceled days."

DREAM Technical Academy of Willmar, a public charter school, has six days in its calendar beyond the state's minimum requirement, "so we have some room if we need to have a snow day or two yet this winter," said Tammie Knick, school social worker.

In a letter this week, NLS Superintendent Jamie Boelter informed his community that e-learning days had run out and thanked those who made them possible.

The district will use traditional snow days if needed, he wrote. The district has two days in its calendar that could be make-up days, but the School Board will decide how and when to adjust the calendar, he said.

Montevideo Public Schools has used four e-learning days, choosing to use a mixture of e-learning and closings during recent storms, said Superintendent Wade McKittrick.

The district uses e-learning only if the decision can be made before 6 a.m., he said.

"We've tried to be respectful," he said, and give teachers and families time to make plans and prepare for the day.

School leaders are working on a plan for making up the two snow days the district has already used, he said.

It's unusual to have so many strong storms so early, he said, and he hopes the weather will calm down in the coming months.

Benson Public Schools has used three e-learning days and has two left.

Closing schools is never easy, but student safety is foremost, said Superintendent Dennis Laumeyer, "and given that school is what some students rely on for their meals and a safe place, these are always difficult decisions."

Also with one e-learning day remaining is Lac qui Parle Valley Public Schools.

Superintendent Rick Ellingworth said his district will return to traditional snow days for the rest of the school year.

Ellingworth said he had spoken with officials at the Minnesota Department of Education and was told only the Legislature could approve an increase in the number of allowed e-learning days.

An increase in e-learning days is a possibility mentioned by several other superintendents.

The commissioner of education can't grant more e-learning days, because their number is set in statute, according to Minnesota Department of Education spokesman Kevin Burns.

Once the days have been used, school districts may need to adjust their calendars to meet the minimum number of instruction days and hours of instruction required in state law, which would be local decisions.

The state requires at least 165 instruction days in a school year. Many districts schedule more than that. Hours of instruction vary with the age of students, from 350 hours for a prekindergarten student to 1,020 hours for students in grades 7-12.