When some kids hear the hallowed words "snow day" in advance of Monday's storm, they'll grab their coats and sleds and head outdoors. But Maryvale Preparatory School senior Elizabeth Piet, like a growing number of students across the Baltimore region, will power up her iPad to see what assignments her teachers have waiting.
Both private and public schools are turning traditional snow days into cyber days that sometimes require students to use the Internet and email to stay connected to their teachers, allowing educators to stick more closely to lesson plans during a winter that's included more severe weather than usual.
"Students have a responsibility, but it's in a good way," said Piet, 18. "We know that we have class obligations. Even if we're not physically there, we still have responsibilities to uphold."
Independent schools, like Maryvale in Lutherville and the John Carroll School in Bel Air, that give each of their students take-home tablets or laptops boast the most robust telecommute programs. Public schools try, meanwhile, to embrace technology while balancing classrooms filled with both students who have access to the Internet at home and those who don't.
Online work in Maryland public schools does not replace classroom time, although it does in some private schools.
At Catonsville High School, government and Advanced Placement economics teacher Graham Long said he records his lectures and uploads the videos to classroom websites. When bad weather is forecast, he tells his AP students to watch the lessons and be responsible for knowing the content when they come back to school.
Relying on the technology works for his advanced students, but he warned that the technology is only as good as the motivation of the students and availability of the technology in their homes. Like Long, some educators worry the technology could widen the achievement gap between rich and poor students.
Besides the socioeconomic factor, Long said, he tries to remember that having a snow day off is one of the perks of being a child.
"I have tried to walk that balance as best I can: My homework sometimes has been to go sledding or shovel the neighbor's driveway," Long said.
At the John Carroll campus, using snow days as cyber days is a practical matter this winter to keep pace with curriculum. The independent Catholic high school -- which has a "1:1" ratio of laptop computers to students --closed for its 11th inclement weather day Monday.
"There was more snow coming, so we went to the cyber day format, and we will stay with that because it has worked so well," Principal Madelyn Ball said. Some students were "not very happy" but the teachers said the cyber days helped them stay on track, Ball said.
Using a protected password, students, teachers and parents can access class pages on Edmodo, which science teacher Jessica Limmer described as "an educational Facebook." Limmer, who is a 2000 graduate of John Carroll, uses the site to post homework assignments. She can also respond to comments left by students.
Limmer said she's been worried about staying on schedule as the number of snow days increased. She said a cyber day "keeps me from having that weight on my shoulders."
Of course, the plan is only as good as the power supply. On a cyber day, students are given extra time to complete assignments if a storm knocks out power in the area and their parents can provide a note or email documenting the outage, Ball said.
The Roland Park Country School and Notre Dame Preparatory School haven't enacted any official cyber days this year, because both schools have been able to configure their calendars to accommodate the snow days through at least the end of February. But faculty at both the schools can interact with students online, school officials said.
In Maryland public schools, the number of assignments and online lessons varies across the state and between standard placement and advanced classes, but the work is only meant to supplement a school day, not replace one, said Bill Reinhard, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.
"Snow days have always been difficult, and this year has been especially challenging for students and teachers." Reinhard said. "The research on snow days' effect on learning is not clear cut, but every teacher I know tells me that students benefit from uninterrupted instructional time."
Rebecca Amani-Dove, spokeswoman for Howard County schools, said the number of snow days this winter has required teachers to find creative ways to keep kids learning from home, such as experimenting with online tools to enhance school days.
"They're using their judgment," Amani-Dove said. "They are getting through the curriculum in the ways they always do."
Kate Malone, a freshman at Maryvale, said with classes canceled Monday she'll probably catch up on reading "The Human Comedy" for her English class and maybe answer some questions on genetics for her biology class, depending on what her teachers assign.
She said teachers warned students on Friday to be ready for the possibility of a cyber day.
"They told us to bring all of our books home in case we didn't have school, so now my backpack is like 800 pounds from all the books I had to bring home," Kate, 14, said. "I am actually fine with it. I think it's pretty good that we get to stay on top of our assignments.
"I really, really like school and I don't like missing it and I don't want to go into midsummer still going to school."
Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters David Anderson and Liz Bowie contributed to this article.
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