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Fargo school district looks at whether Internet may end need for snow days

Cameron Mottet makes up a missed snow day in the kitchen of her home April 8 as her mother, Jane, looks on in Parkville, Mo. Some schools are experimenting with ways for students to do lessons online during bad weather, but there are obstacles, too, especially for families who can't afford computers or Internet access.

FARGO - Could the Internet mean the end of snow days?

Some schools around the country are experimenting with ways for students to do lessons online during bad weather, potentially allowing classes to go on during the worst blizzards.

"Virtual snow days" are seen as a way to ease pressure on school calendars and maintain the required number of student contact days.

Also, online work keeps students involved in material, making it less likely they will have a learning deficit going into standardized testing in the spring, proponents say.

Northern Cass School District in Hunter doesn't have a virtual snow day system, but Superintendent Allan Burgad calls it "an excellent idea. ... In the '09 flood, we missed nine days of school."

Burgad wonders how classes would be delivered to elementary school students but says older students could benefit. If the state decides to sign off on the concept, he'd try it.

"I'd be excited to try anything involving technology. I think our teachers would, too," Burgad said.

West Fargo School District officials haven't discussed virtual snow days, but they are reviewing a system for students who are sick for extended periods or who miss class during floods, said high school Assistant Principal Cory Steiner.

West Fargo will develop online learning modules for high school students for core classes and physical education, Steiner said.

"We're going to pilot it next year," he said. "If we have some success, it's certainly something that could be opened up to a bigger student population."

Other local school officials say the concept is intriguing, but startup costs, questions about equity in Internet access and the fact the area is well-equipped to deal with bad weather weigh against that option here.

Mark Weston, superintendent for Central Cass School District in Casselton, worries about the disparity in opportunity for children without high-speed Internet access, much less a computer. He also wonders if the quality of instruction would be high enough.

"We would definitely want to look to be sure that it's appropriate and accessible to all," Weston said.

Moorhead schools Superintendent Lynne Kovash also worries about access, but floods have prompted her to ask teachers to consider "is there a way, especially for high school students, for us to deliver some of the content online."

Fargo School District officials already coordinate assignments and teacher-student communication online with programs such as Moodle, PowerSchool and district-created software, Superintendent Rick Buresh said.

While a few snow days don't justify the costs of planning and implementation a "snow day" teaching system, the district has plans for epidemics, including the use of community access television and Prairie Public Television, Buresh said.

The district is also considering hybrid courses that mix traditional learning with an online component, said Fargo Assistant Superintendent Bob Grosz.

"What we're learning with that could potentially have benefits down the road," he said.

Josie Holford, head of the Poughkeepsie Day School in New York, which had six snow days and four late starts this past winter, said it's possible to enjoy the outdoors on a snow day and keep learning. Students in one class were told to draw a picture in the snow for a lesson on angles and to take a photo of their creation.

At St. Therese School in the Kansas City suburb of Parkville, Mo., students recently did a virtual make-up day after classes were canceled six times because of weather.

As she used a computer drawing program to complete an art lesson in her kitchen, seventh-grader Cameron Mottet predicted her classmates would embrace the system, especially if it means "they don't have to go to school in June."

The first experiments with virtual snow days began a few years ago. Now, entire schools and districts have joined in, using websites such as Skype and YouTube to keep students as young as kindergarten studying during storms.