TEA, S.D. (KELO) — Across South Dakota, many schools have already had a handful of snow days this winter. 

During the mid-December blizzard, many schools in central South Dakota had three or four snow days. In Sioux Falls, the Sioux Falls School District has had three snow days of no school this year. 

Snow days are still possible for students and staff in the Tea Area School District, but virtual school days are also an option. So far this school year, Tea schools have had four virtual days this year, along with a couple of snow days. 

Tea Area School District elementary principal Samantha Walder told KELOLAND News after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools for a few months in 2020, all Tea Area schools looked at making virtual days possible during snow days. 

The current district-approved plan didn’t start until the 2021-22 school year.

“For the elementary schools, what a virtual snow day looks like is some pre-made packets that get sent home,” Walder said. “Teachers would be available to respond to emails and the packets would be completed and brought back the next day. Most of them offer a lot of options so that the students can utilize whatever materials that they have at home at the elementary level.” 

For middle school and high school, Walder said learning and classes can continue through school-issued Google Chromebooks and Google Classroom. 

“It’s a good opportunity to still connect and continue on with learning,” Walder said. “We had some teachers over the past two (virtual) days that wanted to do some extra things and actually hosted some Google Meets one-on-one with some students. Especially students that had special education plans to make sure that they were meeting the needs that they had.” 

The decision whether to have a true snow day or to pivot to a virtual day comes from the Tea Area School District Superintendent Jennifer Nebelsick Lowery. Walder said Lowery lets all the schools know well in advance if there’s a chance for a virtual day so teachers and students can prepare ahead of time. 

“Everybody knows what to do should a virtual snow day be called,” Walder said. “Teachers have materials prepared that are appropriate for our students and at their level and ready to send home.” 

Last year was the first year Tea utilized the virtual day instead of snow days plan and received feedback from both staff and parents through surveys on how the process has gone. Walder said both teachers and principals met two years ago to develop the virtual day protocol that is now in the works. 

Families also agreed the virtual day plan was an effective way to keep learning while snow prohibited students and teachers arriving safely at school. 

“We received really positive feedback. So, we’re going to continue that way with the district-approved plan,” Walder said. “The concept of virtual snow day is nothing new. Our educators in South Dakota have been thinking outside of the box on how to meet student needs for many years.” 

Walder pointed out that she started her teaching career in Clear Lake for the Deuel School District 15 years ago and that district has something similar to what is used in Tea. 

It’s a plan that works for Tea students and teachers and one Walder said will likely be used again in the future as snow storms impact school days. 

“Our educators have been innovating for years to figure out the best way to bridge that gap, so snow days don’t impede student learning progress,” Walder said.