Connor Joseph, Jordan Bullard and Molly Joseph are students at Greater Atlanta Christian School who studied online together Wednesday after snow and ice forced school buildings to close.

Classes move online when schools close

Just because school was out this week doesn’t mean students weren’t in class.

Online courses kept kids busy during video sessions with teachers, discussions on blogs and assignments submitted through school websites.

For those students, their snow days were no snowcation.

Several private schools treated the snow days almost as if they were regular school days, except with instruction taking place in students’ bedrooms instead of classrooms. Public schools also offered a variety of Web-based activities and homework, from online standardized test prep to math practice.

At Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, teachers gave lessons through video recordings of themselves, assigned homework, distributed quizzes and required students to write on discussion boards.

Connor Joseph, a senior who logged in to “Cyber School” from his laptop, said one of his teacher’s videos helped him get through an advanced placement calculus exercise.

“We can go back and watch it no matter how many times we need to before we get it. We can go at our own pace,” Joseph said. “I don’t mind having school today too much because I’m glad we won’t have to graduate in June after coming back to make up the snow days.”

Fifth-graders in Tracey Abercrombie’s math class at Coal Mountain Elementary in Cumming were sent home with workbooks, and then they got online to learn about polygons and triangles.

Her students took pictures around their houses and uploaded their pictures, and they submitted their assignments through a school website. About 25 of her students participated.

“I told the kids, ‘We don’t want to fall behind. I care about you learning,’” said Abercrombie, who said the Forsyth County school district’s support of technology made her lessons possible. “You can get 10-year-olds to do anything; you just have to motivate them. We’re trying to make it fun.”

Just about every school offers online instructional materials, but the snowstorm encouraged educators to use their virtual schools as a replacement, rather than a supplement, for regular class. With many school systems having missed seven class days because of inclement weather through Thursday, teachers found a way to help students keep learning.

For the most part, students said they didn’t mind if their snow day turned into a school day, especially considering they’d had time off during metro Atlanta’s last snowstorm two weeks ago.

“I’m doing just as much work as I would be doing at school, but I’m at home in the comfort of my PJs,” said Melanie Lane, a junior at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Sandy Springs. “At first, I admit I was like, ‘This is ridiculous, why do we have to do school work,’ but as I started doing it, I realized that after we had snow days last time, I was brain dead when I came back to school. It was hard and laborious because we had been off.”

Students at Mount Vernon Presbyterian used Google Hangouts for video chats with their teachers, and in some cases they took quizzes online.

Fulton County schools had been increasing their online offerings even before this year’s bad weather hit, said Scott Muri, deputy superintendent for academics.

High school students in Fulton have access to virtual learning labs where they can take online courses, and they can collaborate online through a Facebook-like system called Edmoto, where teachers post homework assignments and answer questions, Muri said. More than 15,000 users logged in to Edmoto on Wednesday.

“What the weather does is heighten the importance of online and virtual opportunities for students. The work was already moving aggressively down this track and has been for several years,” he said.

Online education offerings have been increasing for years, but it took time before teachers felt comfortable with the technology and it grew to the level where it was readily available, said Steven McGee, a professor at Northwestern University’s school of education and social policy.

“We might be at a tipping point here where there’s enough infrastructure and expertise in place, and you add in this mix of severe weather that puts people in the position of using it,” he said.

Virtual education during snowstorms has its limits, such as power outages that would prevent students from getting online.

Also, not all students own laptops or tablets that would allow them to participate. That difficulty is why private schools can require students to handle a full load of courses from home, while public schools can only encourage continued learning when school is out for winter weather.

“Not all students learn well virtually, and I don’t want to see this viewed as a panacea,” said Jo Ellen Smith, a parent of two children in Cobb County schools. “There’s nothing that replaces a highly qualified teacher in a reasonable-sized classroom.”

DeKalb County schools included a list of links to educational websites along with its school closure notice. The links sent students to math and English instruction, teaching everything from basic competencies to more advanced lessons that students could compete to complete, said Morcease Beasley, the school district’s executive director for curriculum and instruction.

He said some students will always lack access to a laptop or tablet, but increasing online instruction can only help students grow.

“Whether we realize it or not, many of our kids have devices. It’s predicated upon parents saying, ‘OK, let’s get online and do some work,’” he said.

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