Local public school districts including East Amwell, Ewing, Hunterdon, Lawrence, Montgomery and Princeton have changed their calendar to require students to come to school on some days previously reserved for spring break.

This is necessary to make up for snow days taken. When schools open on former spring break days, attendance will be mandatory. The N.J. Department of Education classifies missing days when school is open, other than for college visits or religious holidays, as unexcused absences.

Hopewell Valley is trying something different. Our schools will be closed over break and we are making up the missed time by exploiting technology and introducing E-learning.

E-learning days feature blended, self-paced learning that may be completed before, during or after spring break. Our district is able to offer E-learning for two important reasons: the first is our long-term commitment to advanced student-centered teaching methods. The second is an uncommon agreement made between the board of education and the HVEA teachers union.

Traditional teaching, referred to by some as “Sage on the Stage,” is the conventional practice of teachers lecturing in front of class while students listen.

More innovative teaching methods, sometimes described as “Guide on the Side,” offer a student-centered approach. For example, project-based assignments, aimed to develop critical reasoning skills, help engage students to investigate and respond in detail to a complex issue.

To be successful in our connected, diverse world, students must learn to collaborate, perform effectively on a team, and apply good judgment while working online. Over the last several years our district has been improving our technology and infrastructure to facilitate this important learning.

Hopewell is not alone. Pascack Valley Regional High School District in North Jersey is making up a snow day with a virtual school day.

“This solution is a creative and productive way to address the scheduling challenge this stormy season has created,” Pascack Valley superintendent Erik Gundersen wrote in his March 21 letter to the community. The superintendent said the district feels virtual days provide a valuable experience to students, who will most likely take online courses in college, or work from home in the future—a new norm for many companies and industries.

Although students will not physically attend school in either district, the Hopewell Valley implementation differs since the Pascack Valley school will require teachers to attend school for the makeup day.

Hopewell’s implementation is permitted due to a provision in the collective bargaining agreement between HVEA teachers’ union and the HVRSD Board of Education that allows for 182 instructional days.

The state mandates 180 days. Hopewell’s extra two contracted days provide flexibility that benefits to students, families, and teachers alike.

In most years, those two days are simply half days tacked on at the end of year. One is used for students that had scheduling conflicts with finals and other high school students do not attend that day.

However, in years such as this, when snow days exceed the number built into the school year, the extra days can act like an insurance policy to provide flexible student learning that not only reduces the need to reschedule vacation time, but also produces all the benefits associated with independent inquiry and explorative learning.

An added bonus is that the board of education and the teachers’ union have a great opportunity to model the collaborative behavior that we hope to instill in our students. Since E-learning days are atypical, they require additional agreement from both sides.
As the climate continues to change, the likeliness of excessive snow days in future years may increase. The combination of unpredictable weather, improved technological infrastructure, and a solid partnership between Hopewell Valley teachers and board provided the perfect storm (pun intended) to offer our students this unique E-learning opportunity.

Lisa Wolff is vice president of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District Board of Education.