Could ‘Cyber Snow Days' Become Reality for Schools in Pa.?

If one Western Pennsylvania state senator has his way, snow-related school cancellations as we know them could be a thing of the past.

But the idea raises all sorts of issues of equity and logistics.

Following this winter's rash of snow-related school closings, Sen. Elder A. Vogel, R-Beaver, pitched this idea to state Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq at a recent education budget hearing:

"I have a private Catholic school in my district who's gone to a virtual school day. Basically, when it snows, they literally make all the kids go online, the teachers go online and you get your class instructions for the day," said Vogel. "Any thought to trying to do this on a larger scale statewide?"

"Yeah, I think folks call that 'cyber-snow days,'" Dumaresq said.

Dumaresq, who likes the idea in theory, said it's been coming up in internal conversations a lot this year, but said it would be tough to implement in practice.

"You have to make sure that all students have access to the hardware, and I know that a lot of students have their own iPads ..., but you'd have to ... have equal access and also access to the Internet where they would download the materials to do that, and then you have...special education IEPs that need to be met," she said.

Dumaresq, though, didn't rule the possibility of "cyber-snow days" becoming a reality in the future.

"If I could see models that would assure equal access and IEPs being met, then I think we need to discuss that," she said.

A recent Pew report found that eight in 10 Philadelphians have Internet access, but this figure takes cell phone connectivity into account.

That number drops precipitously when tallying home computers with broadband capabilities.

The 2010 census found that less than half of Philadelphians could count on that technology.

In a followup phone call, Vogel, who has not drafted a bill on the proposal, called the idea more of a "curiosity kind of thing."

"It's probably not doable for anytime in the near future, obviously, for every student in a public school across the state of Pennsylvania," he said.

It could work sooner, he said, for "districts a little bit more on the wealthy side, obviously, unfortunately."

In other snow-related school closing news, Dumaresq reiterated that school districts that have had an overabundance of school cancellations have flexibility in how they make up their state-mandated 180 education days.

Districts have the option of fulfilling state requirements by the hour.

For elementary schools, it breaks down to 180 multiplied by five hours per day, totalling 900 hours. For secondary education, it's 180 multiplied by five and a half hours per day, totalling 990 hours.

Districts can apply to the state to cover some of these hours by extending school days, or counting teacher-training or parent-teacher conferences as education time.

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