Wednesday wasn't your average snow day for public school students in the Camden area.
Their district was the first in Maine to try out a "remote school day," which required them to complete online and take-home assignments at their houses. The new model has generated some concerns and might have difficulty finding support in other parts of the state.
Wednesday morning started like any normal snow day for 16-year-old Angus Carter. He and his dad fired up a snowblower, and cleared the long driveway to their family’s home just outside of town. On a normal snow day, Angus would finish his chores, sit down in front of the TV, and like so many teenage boys, play the online battle game Fortnite.
But because of a new district policy, Carter had to take a break from the game, log on to his school-supplied tablet, and complete a few of his assignments for biology class.
"Re-do a quiz,” he says. "And do some Punnett squares, to look at probability of offsprings."
Carter and other students from across SAD 28 and the Five Towns Community School District, near Camden and Rockport, were the first traditional public school students in Maine to try out this new style of "remote school day."
Superintendent Maria Libby says it's designed to address a growing number of snow days, which have to be made up.
"We've had a lot of snow days. Last year we had nine, I think," Libby says. "And I think it's a better solution than going on a Saturday or extending every day for a week. All those things take their toll. And I just think this is a much more effective way to not have so many snow days."
The approach looks slightly different depending on the grade. Kindergarten to fourth graders receive bags with activities such as books and math games. Fifth and sixth graders get take-home projects from their teachers. Older students, however, use their school-supplied laptops and tablets, many funded by the state, through which teachers post assignments and can help answer questions via online platforms.
"I just thought it was a good use of an investment that the state of Maine has made in technology," Libby says.
The new approach has required a lot of work. District staffers spent hours last summer fleshing out the idea, and Libby says teachers have had to create lesson plans and online resources. The district has also developed plans to ensure that students with disabilities get the support they need at home.
"We've really tried to be thoughtful about all the potential complications and how we can address those ahead of time," she says.
Several of Maine's public charter schools have already piloted remote school days in recent years. But adding them to Maine's traditional public schools has faced complications. In December, the Maine Department of Education issued a memo saying that remote school days wouldn't be considered "instructional days" by the state, and would only be allowed after a district had already arranged five regular makeup days. But officials in Camden say they recently met with the new Education Commissioner, who gave them permission to try out a remote school day on Wednesday.
Several other school districts, meanwhile, say they're watching the new experiment. While some superintendents are intrigued by remote school days, they express concerns about internet access for all students.
"We do have a problem with whether all kids would have access," says Tina Meserve, superintendent of RSU 9 in Farmington. "And if that would disadvantage students who are already disadvantaged when we do something like that."
Meserve says a recent survey in her district found that almost 10 percent of the district's sixth through 12th graders don't have internet access at home.
In Camden, the district has passed out several devices that supply WiFi to students at their house. The other question raised by administrators, though, is motivation.
Tim Doak, the superintendent of RSU 39 in Caribou, is unsure if students, particularly younger ones, will be self-directed enough to work at home.
"There are others that probably wouldn't have enough discipline to engage themselves the whole day,” Doak says. “While they could be outside, exercising and running through the snow. It's just one of those things we would have to look at."
Camden Hills Regional High School student Angus Carter and his family have mixed opinions so far. Angus's dad, Hodding Carter, says he doesn't want his kids to lose that quintessential snow day experience of relaxing and running through the snow.
"Our daughters are all out of college now, and it was their favorite winter day, probably, was a snow day! Practice in the afternoon would get cancelled,” he says. “They didn't have to go to school. Didn't have to go to practice. It was just a nice, free day in the middle of a, sometimes, difficult school year."
Angus is unsure, too. He likes that school potentially won't have to run into late June.
"I'm happy about that part. It's just annoying to have to do homework on a snow day,” he says. “Which is usually, like, ‘Whoopie! Snow day!’ But not anymore."
The Five Towns Community School District, meanwhile, is optimistic that the model can work. Officials there say they've already heard from several parents whose young kids were eager to start on their snow day assignments.
And despite the obstacles that it took to even test out this model, it appears that other school districts will have the opportunity to try it out. Maine Department of Education spokesperson Rachel Paling says the agency is working on guidance that will include a way for school districts to pilot remote school days next year.
The department says the districts will need to have a strategy to support students with disabilities, follow federal nutrition guidelines, and "provide equitable access for all students."
Originally published 5:37 p.m. Feb. 13, 2019