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CLARK COUNTY — Starting in 2020, snow days won't stop Greater Clark County Schools from teaching students as the district implements a new digital learning program.

In January, Greater Clark will start using "eLearning days" when school is closed for bad weather, allowing students to receive instruction and assignments outside of the classroom. On these days, students will interact with teachers through Google Classroom and other digital tools through the state program.

Greater Clark's eLearning days plan was unanimously approved by the school board at Tuesday's meeting. The program is part of the school district's 1:1 computer initiative, which provides laptops for each student in grades 3 to 12. The days would count as full days of instruction, so they would not have to make them up at the end of the school year.

On eLearning days, schools will use Google Classroom to assign lessons and provide instruction. Teachers would need to post assignments by 9 a.m. that day, and they would need to be online from 9 a.m. to noon on eLearning days to answer questions and provide instruction as needed. In the afternoon, teachers would be expected to be available to answer emails until 2:30 p.m.

Greater Clark Superintendent Mark Laughner said the district will spend the first semester of the 2019-2020 school year to plan the program and train teachers for the eLearning days. In the fall semester, the district will present two practice eLearning days during school so that teachers and students can familiarize themselves with the plan before it rolls out.

"We feel good about what we put together … I don’t want to say we look forward to any bad weather, but we do look forward to trying this plan out," Laughner said at Tuesday's board meeting.

Melissa Bower, director of technology and instructional improvement at Greater Clark, said eLearning will allow the district to expand upon its technology initiative. Students have had access to laptops through the 1:1 program for several years, and they will soon have new HP Chromebook laptops.

This integration of technology in schools has made instruction more engaging and relevant to students, she said, and it allows teachers to explore interactive tools to use both in and outside of the classroom to teach students. Teachers would only use technological tools students are already familiar with on eLearning days, she said.

Students can use several free features from Google to work from home, and teachers could also post video lessons on eLearning days.

"There is a lot of things within our Google suite that they can use — Google Classroom has several features that allows you to interact with your documents. Google Docs allows students to interact with each other and work on a shared assignment even as they're not in the same classroom," Bower said. "We do a lot with Google Forms and being able to assess and survey that way."

She emphasized the benefits of providing uninterrupted instruction time. These days are meant to be an extension of their classroom learning time, she said.

"It allows the learning to continue without stopping for that snow day," Bower said. "So things that you would have traditionally done in class that day, you can still kind of carry on and continue that student learning piece of that. It also allows for the integration of that technology to allow it to be even more engaging."

It also helps families by preventing make-up days at the end of the school year, including families who have planned vacation days at the beginning of summer break, Bower said.

Some students might have difficulty using the eLearning program if they don't have Internet access at home, she said, but students will be given enough time to complete the assignment. If they were not able to complete their assignment at home, additional support will be available when they return to school, she said.

The assignments will be due three days following the eLearning day, and if students do not complete their work within the three-day period, they will be counted as absent for that day.

If bad weather is expected for the next day, teachers can also send an assignment home with students for a possible eLearning day, Laughner said.

In addition to inclement weather days, the district intends to introduce planned eLearning days starting in the 2020-2021 school year. These dates would be predetermined and marked in the school calendar, and the eLearning days could include professional development or teacher-only days.

The district spent about a year developing the eLearning plan. About 150 schools in Indiana are using eLearning days, Laughner said, and the district talked to several school districts who are using the program. Our Lady of Providence High School in Clarksville is among the Southern Indiana schools who have used the program.

Melinda Ernstberger, principal at Providence High School, said the school introduced eLearning days in the 2014-2015 school year. Their students already receive iPads to use at school, so this technology allows them to continue instruction outside of the classroom, she said. The lessons on these days follow the same learning targets as a usual day.

"Our faculty and our students believe that this works well," she said. "We have a high percentage of students who find this to be a successful academic day when we do this," she said.

There are always issues that will surface on eLearning days, but the school provides extra time for assignments in case of power outages, along with an "SOS" line to report issues or help students get in touch with teachers, Ernstberger said. It helps their students when their learning "continues no matter what," she said, and she often finds that they enjoy working with digital tools at their own pace during the eLearning days.

"The biggest reason why we want to do it is to keep learning moving forward," she said. "The second reason is that our students really need to be comfortable with digital learning. They’re going to see digital learning in college, they’re going to see it in the workforce, so it’s really important that we help them get that experience, so when they are asked to do it when they leave Providence, they are well adept on how to be successful in the various e-learning they are asked to do in their lives."

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