Bartow launching digital learning days


Carefree snow days may be a thing of the past for Bartow County students. 

The Bartow County School System has changed its inclement weather plan by implementing digital learning days in an effort to lessen the academic impact and calendar changes that can occur when schools must close.

"There are two great benefits to this initiative," instructional technology specialist Amber Bunce said.  "First, academics are impacted when school is closed. There is a continuity that is disrupted. Lost days can impact the amount of material that is taught and what is remembered. Using these days that would otherwise be lost allows the students to stay active and involved in their learning.

"Secondly, the school calendar and holidays are not impacted. School calendars are set far in advance.  Families — student and staff alike — depend on the scheduled breaks when making plans. When the calendar is changed suddenly, plans have to be changed and/or canceled."

During a digital learning day, students will be encouraged to either work on printed materials distributed before schools are closed or on their school-issued laptop to access assignments in Schoology, the district’s learning management system.

The short, grade-appropriate lessons will enrich standards already addressed in class and will not contain new material or subject matter. 

"Teachers have been trained and have been working on lessons since November for digital learning days," Bunce said. "We have all discussed appropriate types of assignments and lengths and expectations. All teachers have those assignments ready to go now. They will be published and made accessible to the students when/if a day is declared a digital learning day."

Some assignments might be tied into the reason the students are missing school, according to Bunce.  

"Many teachers are creating lessons that will incorporate the weather events that could be happening with writing assignments, visual activities and even live discussion boards," she said. "Lessons will enrich standards taught in the classroom."

Digital learning days will apply to students at all grade levels, even kindergarten through second grade, which don't have laptops, Bunce said.

"There will be written, tangible assignments made available to students in primary grades, K-2, and also in some specific instances for students with disabilities," she said.

Teachers also will have virtual office hours to assist students as needed.

"Based on research and professional advice from several other nearby school districts, there will be a split between elementary and middle/high office hours," Bunce said. "Each group has a morning and afternoon hour of availability." 

The digital lessons primarily will be assigned when students miss more than one day of school due to inclement-weather closures, and no more than two digital learning days will be issued during one school closing event.

Upon returning to school, students will have a grace period before work is due, with a three- to five-day window being the general guideline, Bunce said, adding the due date is a "school decision."   

If families experience power outages or internet issues during the bad weather, additional time and resources to complete assignments will be provided to students when they return to campus.

Bunce said she started researching this "truly innovative idea that strategically blends teaching and technology during inclement weather days" last January.

"I read articles about digital learning days and spoke with other teachers who were familiar with it before and especially following the multiple days we were out of school during the winter of 2017-2018," she said. "This has been a year of research, planning and discussion. We surveyed the community as well as faculty and staff. We also collaborated with other districts and building-leadership teams. This plan brings excitement and ultimately benefits our students, families and teachers."

Those surveys showed a "favorable response" from faculty, staff and parents representing all 20 Bartow County schools, with 96 percent of staff members being in favor, and 85 percent of the community responses "agreed that this is a viable plan,” she added.

Bunce said there are several reasons the digital learning days are a good fit for the district.

"The school system has really embraced and integrated technology in all of our schools," she said. "I was in the classroom at Adairsville Middle School in 2013-2014 when we implemented the 1-1 conversion, which put laptops in the hands of every student in our school. We have since expanded the program to include third-grade students as well. It was explosive."

Also using a learning management system like Schoology, which averages 15,000 student logins each day, for the third year enables the school system to make the initiative work, she added.

Superintendent Dr. Phillip Page said district leaders contacted at least four other nearby school systems that had been successful in implementing the program. 

"We have the desire, technology, platform and ability to apply this new procedure," he said. "School closures impact the continuity of instruction for our students and can change the school calendar. By designating digital learning days, the BCSS will be able to lessen those impacts.”

Additional school- and grade-specific information about the initiative will be released this month in messages, newsletters and other general school communications.