While most Fairfax County public school students are getting on the bus on April 7, students from one school instead will be logging in.
Students from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology will attend class virtually next Monday. The school is holding what it calls a “telelearn day,” with students checking in and completing work online rather than in classrooms.
For all intents and purposes, the day is treated as a regular school day, though the halls at the Alexandria school will be devoid of students. Students are required to check into the school system’s online learning system, Blackboard, and then will complete remote tasks for each class.
Thomas Jefferson has held such virtual school days before. The school piloted the program in the 2010-11 school year, and after deeming it a success has held at least one telelearn day every year since then. The school library remains open for students who do not have Internet access at home.
The state Department of Education has no guidelines regarding such virtual school days, according to spokesman Charles Pyle. Schools must meet the minimum number of instructional days required by state law, but nothing says the days have to take place in the actual school building.
“Our Fairfax County administration has given us the flexibility to monitor this,” said Thomas Jefferson principal Evan Glazer. “There’s a general tolerance for trying different things, as long as students are learning and continuing in their curriculum.”
Telelearning provides the school the opportunity to maximize student and teacher efficiency within the school calendar, according to Glazer.
Telelearning typically is scheduled for early-release days, such as the day before Thanksgiving, to eliminate commuting time for students. As a regional magnet school, about 20 percent of students come from neighboring counties.
“The students from other counties or the far parts of Fairfax can spend almost as much time on the bus as in class,” said Grace Becker, president of the Thomas Jefferson PTSA.
The school also has held telelearn days at the end of academic quarters to give teachers more flexibility to work on grades and lesson plans, as telelearn days require more advanced planning than hands-on teaching.
April 7 falls in this category. Fairfax County schools originally had scheduled that date as a student holiday, but later switched it to a regular school day to make up for one of the 11 weather-related closings the district had this winter.
Around the country, more and more school districts are experimenting with telelearning as an option for making up snow days — or even holding school during snowstorms.
Pascack Valley Regional High School District in New Jersey and Mississinawa Valley School District in Ohio both held virtual class during snow days this winter. In Ohio, districts can make up as many as three snow days a year by posting lessons online and requiring students to complete the work from home.
Glazer expressed uncertainty with the possibility of telelearning on snow days, noting the significant planning that is required for virtual learning to succeed.
“You can’t just announce that you’re going to hold class,” Glazer said. “Teachers need to be given advance warning so they can adjust lesson plans accordingly. They wouldn’t just have a lesson plan in their back pocket.”
Even with advance planning, Thomas Jefferson still is honing the telelearning process.
Teachers have flexibility in their lessons — some posting videos and podcasts, others holding online discussions and demonstrations. But students sometimes struggle to complete the assigned activities within the time limits of a typical class period.
“You’re trying to come up with activities that fit within the time that’s given, but not every student works at the same rate,” Glazer said. “But you don’t want the class period to feel like a glorified homework assignment. So we’re always working with the community to get better.”