Jamila Cola and daughter, Zayna-4 head to the top of the hill with a tube at Piedmont Park on Wednesday morning, Jan. 17, 2018. Metro Atlanta schoolchildren got to enjoy a snow day, but for many, that now includes some learning time — online — in addition to the playtime outside. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC
Photo: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Schools, parents don’t want learning, or fun, snowed under

Clayton County Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley took to social media Wednesday morning with a plan for his students stuck at home as metro Atlanta contended with icy roads and freezing temps:

Go play in the snow.

“I think it’s important that we let kids be kids,” he said. “When life, through whatever method, gives us a day like today, we need to appreciate it.

“Believe you me, we’ll be back in class rocking hard before we realize it.”

While several area school districts opt for digital learning days so students don’t fall behind during weather interruptions — or end up with days tacked onto the end of the school year — Beasley said he welcomes the break for students already dealing with pressures of instruction centered around testing.

Some districts are taking advantage of technology that allows students to learn from anywhere. Gwinnett and Forsyth schools opted for digital learning days Wednesday instead of giving students the whole day off.

“We have to go ahead and embrace it because, I believe, this is going to be the new process,” said Gwinnett parent Renee A. Johnson, who compiled and shared tips on Facebook to help parents and students access the online lessons. “I believe as parents we have to be as positive as possible in order for children to accept this and adapt to it. If we come negatively, then the children will see it as something negative and begin to complain, and we don’t want that because then we will be raising complainers.”

Kelli Sinclair, a seventh-grade science teacher in Gwinnett, was reluctant to swap an old-fashioned snow day for a cyber day. She worried about students who don’t have the technology at home. And, as a single mom of a first-grader, she wondered how she could balance online teaching duties with caring for her son.

But on Wednesday, she said she’s come to love the concept. That’s good, since Thursday will be another learn-at-home day because of lingering icy roads.

Sinclair prepared a 30- to 40-minute online lesson for Wednesday that fits what she’s currently teaching in the classroom. She gave students a video to watch, an article to read about lemurs in Madagascar, and a quiz to take.

Her students could call, text, or reach her online for help Wednesday and log into the lesson once they return to school.

“My opinion has changed a little bit as time has gone on over the last three years, because access to the internet is readily available,” she said.

As for figuring out how to teach and parent on a snow day? She found she can pull that off, too.

By noon Wednesday, her son already had been outside to play with neighbors, and she had used the morning to check in on her students.

“There’s a nice balance between get outside … and when you come in to warm up let’s do a little bit of work,” she said.

Forsyth County Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo said when the district began letting students bring their own technology to use at school about 10 years ago, digital learning happened sporadically in small pockets across the district. The system used today was instituted fully about four years ago. Now, Caracciolo said, classes use a system, Itslearning, daily. When schools are closed, students log into the system for assignments.

It hasn’t been without its hiccups.

Teachers learned early that the assignments they were giving were too long. Lessons were modified after teachers got training to help delineate between classroom and distance-learning strategies.

“Every year, we tweak and modify it,” she said.

There are also digital learning days in school, when elementary students come to school still dressed in their pajamas, and work online with their teachers.

Not every school or student is equipped for at-home learning. Atlanta Public Schools doesn’t offer a district-wide digital program because many families don’t have access, said spokesman Ian Smith.

“Days like to today illustrate the importance of ensuring that students and families have access to the latest technology to ensure that they are not behind their peers in neighboring counties who are continuing to learn even when school is closed,” he said, in a written statement.

Don’t get his point twisted, Beasley said. Clayton Schools has integrated technology into its daily structure. Students have access to online tools to assist with learning, and the district is working with Comcast to ensure all students have internet connectivity so they can work from home when interruptions make it necessary.

“We’re a very digitally resourced network,” he said.

For some parents, intruding on a snow day is one step too far. Children should be able to kick back on a snow day, some argue.

Susan Campbell thinks there’s room for a bit of fun and school work on snow days.

Her son, a student at Haynes Bridge Middle School, spent part of a frigid Wednesday in his bedroom reading a book.

She wants Fulton County Schools to start using online learning days.

“It’s not taking the place of playing outside,” she said. “They don’t have to be plugged in the entire time.”

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