SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — It’s a snow day in the Sioux Falls School District (SFSD), as it is in many districts of the state Wednesday. But not all districts.

This will be the 4th day without school in the SFSD this winter season. According to the district, it does not build snow days into the calendar, instead choosing to make them up at the end of the school year.

An official end-date for the year has not been decided, as the school board meets in April to make the decision.

In the past several years, virtual school, or e-learning, has risen in prominence, allowing students to learn and interact with their teacher from their own homes when weather or other events make it impossible to reach the school.

As the technology grew more common, school districts have made decisions on whether or not to adopt e-learning as a practice on traditional snow days. Sioux Falls has opted not to.

According to the district, this is in part due to the fact that students in grades K-8 do not take their school devices, be they laptops or tablets, home with them. In addition to this, not all students have the internet connectivity at home that is needed for virtual learning.

The district that has recently embraced e-learning is the Wall School District (WSD).

Today, KELOLAND News spoke with WSD Superintendent Pandi Pittman about the practice of e-learning and how it’s working for her district.

“We just started this [school] year,” Pittman said when asked how long the district has used e-learning. “In December, I saw that first blizzard coming — I put a lot of thought into it, and then I went ahead and called remote school on December 12, and we were in remote school through the 13th through the 15th.”

One thing to be aware of with the WSD is that they observe four-day school weeks, which presents both unique challenges and opportunities.

“Probably the key piece to a remote situation, whether it be a snow day or a snow make-up day is the opportunity to prepare,” Pittman said.

The four-day week can provide that opportunity, with some limits. This is because of the possibility of the aforementioned remote snow make-up days. A benefit of the four-day school week is that in some cases, school could be called off on a Monday because of weather, and students/staff would not necessarily have to do remote learning on that day, but could take a snow day and instead make up that day on a Friday.

This does come with exceptions of course.

“Fridays are also a day when a lot of people schedule doctors appointments or activities for their kids,” Pittman said. “Plus when you take a four-day schedule and spread it out five days, it’s really hard on elementary. It’s a lot of class time.”

The remote make-up day being held on a Friday, according to Pittman, gives teachers, families and students the opportunity to prepare for that change in schedule.

Pittman says she sent out a survey to staff and parents, asking about the remote learning that had taken place.

“We did have very good feedback in our survey,” Pittman said. “75% of the parents and caregivers were happy with how we did things. There was a small percentage that were happy but would like to see a few tweaks.”

There were some valid critiques of the implementation from parents/caregivers, said Pittman.

“More consistency among teachers — that was probably the number one thing, but the handling of a kindergartener with remote learning is going to be much different than a 12th grader,” Pittman said.

The e-learning process is still in its early stages for the WSD. So far, Pittman says the district has had three e-learning days, while Feb. 22 and 23 will be the 4th and 5th e-learning days.

Pittman says the process has gone smoothly so far, and she chalks this up, in part, to the way in which the district has already been using technology.

“Even the platforms my staff are using right here on a remote day are platforms they use year-round,” said Pittman. “They’re not scrambling to build a bunch of new stuff. This is an every day thing, and that’s part of our research and development of this.”

Pittman says the goal is for the platform to remain the same, regardless of whether the classes are in-person or remote. Providing an example, she pointed to the use by her K-2 grade of private Facebook pages, which are used for everything from announcements to show-and-tell.

Pittman notes that the WSD has the advantage of having a very substantial connection to Wi-Fi, but this isn’t the only potential advantage the district has.

The WSD is also a fairly small school district, with a little under 300 students as of last fall. This relatively small size could play a role in what Pittman considers the other main reason the e-learning experiment has been such a success. Communication.

“It’s a matter of knowing upfront what kids have wi-fi — so you know what you can and cannot send,” Pittman said. “That’s the teacher knowing their kids and their abilities.”

This was a point Pittman hit upon at a couple points of the interview. “Knowing these things is something you’re going to have to start to do on the first day of school when that kid walks into your classroom,” she said. “My teachers know their students in their classrooms well enough to make this work.”

Pittman pushed back on the idea that the small size of the district is necessarily an advantage on this front, arguing that regardless of the size of the school, it’s important that staff know their students. “The backpack program every weekend is based on how well you know this kid,” she added as an example.

Of course, there are some downsides to e-learning. One noted by Pittman is the flexibility required to carry it out.

“We had -51° here in Wall back in December. I was trying to keep my water pipes from freezing while I was being a superintendent,” Pittman said. “You may have students out in rural areas, and in this end of February, they may be out in the barn all day. They may not get to their school work until they come in tonight.”

E-learning is an option for snow days, Pittman explained, but it’s not the only option, she specified.

For some students, e-learning is not an option, particularly if they lack Wi-Fi at home. This is after all one of the reasons the SFSD opted not to do remote learning days, and it is an issue the WSD will need to address.

Pittman for her part hopes to see a statewide working group to find solutions to problems. “One of them is students that don’t have the resources and still need alternative learning options on a snow day,” she said.

But what about today? Will students without internet connections at home receive hard copies of lessons to take home? Will they be given opportunities to complete work they were technologically unable to participate in from home?

“All of the above,” said Pittman. She also suggested that paraprofessionals working in the classrooms could also participate in one-on-one phone calls with off-line students to help them with their lessons.

One thing Pittman thinks is important for people to understand is that e-learning days and in-person learning days are fundamentally not the same.

“Face-to-face, especially at the elementary, you’re going to introduce new instruction,” Pittman explained. “You’re going to have your art, your music, all that stuff — what we’re doing in remote is focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic — that kind of instruction is more condensed down to what’s needed.”

Pittman says what she likes about remote learning is the ability to keep students focused and engaged in learning on days where they otherwise wouldn’t be.

She points to the storms before Christmas, when they first went remote, noting that without that ability they could have been out of school for a full six days in a row before going into a longer absence because of Christmas break.

While these remote learning days are not a 1:1 comparison with a normal school day, Pittman contends that make-up days at the end of the school year aren’t either.

“I mean good grief, you’re bringing kids back in the end of May and in June, and it’s gorgeous out and they’re staring out the windows,” said Pittman. “At least I can keep kids engaged now.”

The WSD e-learning process is not perfect. Pittman acknowledges this, and noted that there is of course room for improvement. But with a positive attitude toward it after its first two months, she says she hopes to have it in the handbook by the next school year, and to improve the program.

“Do the best you can until you know better, then do better,” Pittman said. “That’s our philosophy.”