On two recent days when school was canceled because of poor weather, students in the Farmington district were able to keep on learning — while still wearing their pajamas.
The district has already officially reclaimed two days — Presidents' Day and Feb. 21 — by implementing flexible learning days, designated study-from-home days during which all students complete quizzes, read stories and watch videos for class using iPads.
And with two trials under their belt, students and teachers are ready to work from home again if needed.
The district, which gave iPads to all 7,000 students last year as part of its emphasis on technology and personalized learning, had already considered working a few "digital learning days" into the calendar this year but decided they weren't ready yet, Superintendent Jay Haugen said.
After schools were forced to close several days in a row during January's bitter cold, the district quickly decided to "dust off" the idea right away, he said.
"We said, 'You know, this is a much better way than just adding days on at the end of the year,' " he said. "And we're going to learn so much with both our students and our staff by kind of putting this out there."
Both days have been successful overall, Haugen said, with 5,400 students and 700 parents logging on to Schoology, the districtwide Web platform used by teachers and students to communicate, on the recent snow day. That was 85 percent more activity than on a normal day, he said.
But the district is still learning as it goes.
"Overall, when I'm out and about, I get lots of positive comments," he said. "But also there are those frustrations."
Haugen addressed some of the early challenges via a posting on the district's website. Some teachers posted too much work or assignments were too complicated for younger kids to complete alone. Other students couldn't find their assignments, he said.
Presidents' Day was a planned flexible learning day, meaning students knew assignments ahead of time and had the whole weekend to finish. But the second day, canceled because of a snowstorm, was "a bit more challenging," said Lisa Reichelt, principal at Akin Road Elementary. Helping students understand what is expected and where to find assignments if there are any more impromptu days will be a continued challenge, she said.
While about 98 percent of district families have Internet access, another concern is how to handle assignments for those few who don't. In those cases, teachers can call home with alternate assignments, or kids can go somewhere to use the Internet. Students without access won't be penalized for not completing online assignments, Haugen said.
Haugen said he hasn't heard of another Minnesota district doing anything similar to what Farmington is trying, though many East Coast schools seem to be jumping on board to make up their weather-related cancellation days.
On Presidents' Day, Farmington High School math teacher Jennifer Snobeck had her students watch a video and complete a work sheet online. And on the snow day, students "were dropping assignments to me all day long," she said, though she was at home. She was able to correct them and communicate with students simultaneously. The process was "pretty seamless," she said.
Meanwhile, her kids, a fourth- and fifth-grader in the district, finished assignments online, including quizzes. Her daughter had to record a video of her playing the flute for band class. "There was a lot of variety," she said.
Reichelt recalled that fourth-graders at her school created a tutorial explaining long division, using a program similar to PowerPoint.
Farmington High School Principal Ben Kusch said one asset of the flexible days is that they allow students to make up work now, during the second trimester, rather than at the end of the year.
Haugen said that it hasn't been decided whether the district will add days in June. "We're just doing this so that the learning continues," Haugen said. "What we want is to make sure everyone is caught up … by the end of the year."