FORSYTH COUNTY — The Forsyth County Board of Education’s recent announcement that no inclement weather days will be built into the 2015-16 school calendar has triggered a polarizing debate on the online learning system students will use to submit assignments from home.
School district personnel have assured parents and the community that itslearning — the virtual, interactive online teaching portal — has been and will continue to be successful in retaining high-level instructional time even when schools must close.
The decision to nix snow days came after students stayed home for at least a week last school year during snow and ice storms.
Some of that lost time was made up via two built-in inclement weather days and the elimination of one early release day. But parents didn’t want to sacrifice spring break or extend the school year.
During this time, some teachers posted assignments to itslearning or gave students take-home work.
Kristina Strickland, an Earth system science teacher at West Forsyth High, uses the system “on a daily basis.” She uploads presentations, videos, discussions and quizzes.
“If they’re absent, they can come in with the assignment already completed because they had access to it at home a week in advance,” she said.
She also gives hard copies of what she uploads to ensure the same learning is “accessible to everybody.”
Customizable virtual classrooms
Schools have been training teachers and students to use the system for two years, said Jason Naile, the district’s coordinator of digital learning. They don’t want a repeat of last year’s lost time, even if the polar vortexes return.
Schools have been using some form of online “blended” learning since at least 2007. Itslearning is being used the most at the high school level.
“Parents of local school councils were wanting to have something for their kids to do [during extended school closures,” Naile said. “The idea is not for them to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day on a snow day.”
If a class is reading a novel, Naile said, the teacher can post discussion questions and chat with students. They can submit videos and audio files. Foreign language teachers can record a prompt and ask students to upload a verbal response.
The system is compatible with any device, meaning students can record a prompt or write a discussion response on their iPhone, tablet or laptop.
Naile said flexibility is a key factor to the system’s success, so a five-day window will allow students to complete work on their own time. This also accounts for power outages.
“It’s not like [students] have to complete a full week’s worth of work in the next five days on top of the work they have once they get back to school,” he said.
Since teachers' online classrooms are their own, those at the elementary school level can present a simpler screen to younger students, a practice Naile said Whitlow Elementary is using.
“Instead of giving a paragraph prompt, you can record your voice, which is good for both young students and special needs students,” Naile said. “You can upload a … video and have them watch a certain topic. A short quiz with pictures and videos can be embedded.
“If they’re studying vocabulary words, they can use a matching tool for students to essentially drag and drop pictures.”
Access for everyone
Naile said about 170 Kajeet SmartSpots have been issued to schools for students without home Internet access, and the district is ordering more because “we know we haven’t identified all of the students.”
The devices, which can be connected to up to 10 items — giving access to families with multiple children — can only be used during district-specified hours, with filters set as strictly as school computers.
Kajeets are funded entirely through the Forsyth BYOT Benefit, a golf tournament and device drive that raises money to buy the items. Old school laptops are kept for the same purpose when they are replaced with newer models.
Of course, Naile said, there are schools in the county that have a lot of access and schools where it may be more of a challenge, so “we just have to have flexibility to have more time [to complete work] in higher-need schools.”
“We understand this is a shift for many people, especially parents,” said Jennifer Caracciolo, spokeswoman for the school district. “As with any new initiative, we have had positive and negative feedback, but the majority of the input has been positive.
“We experienced similar feedback when we rolled out [the Bring Your Own Technology program] six years ago, and now it’s a part of how we operate.”