NORTH SMITHFIELD – Those who grew up prior to technological advances that made online education commonplace likely remember it well: the excitement surrounding a day where nasty weather could offer freedom from the obligations of a classroom – with time to be filled by hours of sledding, snowball fights or the building of various igloos and snowmen.
For kids today, virtual education has the potential to replace that winter fun with time spent staring at a computer screen.
But for students attending North Smithfield schools, it seems, the joy of a, “snow day,” isn’t a thing of the past just yet.
Supt. Michael St. Jean asked members of the North Smithfield School Committee this month for permission to apply to the Rhode Island Department of Education for the authority to utilize virtual learning to keep classroom education on track when winter weather presents obstacles.
Online education, however, won’t be the, “go to,” plan at this town’s public schools, he said.
“This is only for something well known in advance,” St. Jean said, pointing to blizzards that educators see coming well in advance, or cases where a particularly nasty winter has already extended the school year well into June. “We’re just putting it out there as an option.”
The superintendent’s request follows a poll in which 882 parents and teachers in the district weighed in on the issue, and nearly 80 percent indicated they’d prefer to have the option to go virtual.
When North Smithfield schools do dedicate a day to virtual learning, teachers will utilize technology that became familiar to students nationwide during the pandemic, teaching their class online from the comfort of home. In Rhode Island, schools now have rules governing online learning laid out by state education authorities.
St. Jean noted that the district must submit a detailed application to RIDE for the authority to utilize the virtual option, and have a pre-approved plan.
“We can’t just switch over into virtual snow days as we wish,” he said. “RIDE has criteria around that – how many hours, and what qualifies as a virtual instruction day.”
School Committee member Jean Meo pointed out that the North Smithfield school district had the technology in place, and was ready to implement such virtual snow days prior to the pandemic.
“We had a plan ready to go and the state wasn’t ready for us,” she said.
Some snow days, St. Jean said, will remain traditional, with online instruction only used in a, “worst case scenario.”
“It’s just to have this in our bag,” he said, noting the option can prevent an abundance of “make up days,” at the end of the year that extend into summer. “After the last calendar day of school, there’s just not the best learning happening.”
St. Jean noted that when he declared an official no-strings-attached snow day last year, he instructed families to get outside, noting that every kid should get hit with a snowball.
“Yes, we need those,” he said of unexpected winter breaks for carefree fun.
Committee members voted unanimously to give St. Jean the authority to submit an application for virtual snow days with RIDE.