One cold Monday this month, all the students of Park Ridge High School stayed home: wearing their PJs, munching on pretzels and Oreos, hanging out on the couch.
It wasn't a snow day or measles epidemic. It was the school's first Virtual Day, where in-person classes were replaced with written lessons and real-time video chats delivered online.
The idea arose because the school, just north of New York City in Park Ridge, N.J., issued every student a Mac laptop last year, says Tina Bacolas, the school's head of instructional technology.
The school chose a software system called Schoology that allows students and teachers to communicate by text and video and post assignments.
"Once we had that up and running, the idea of a virtual school day was thrown out there" as a way of testing those capabilities, Bacolas told NPR Ed.
"Our ultimate goal is to prepare kids for life after high school," says principal Troy Lederman. "Most colleges say that kids should be taking at least one online course, and there's a lot of careers where people can work from home."
And then there's the added benefit of having a backup plan for the school in case of snow days or other emergencies.
In a video posted to YouTube the week before the experiment, students were all for it. "I'm excited because I'm going to take my laptop to Starbucks and do all my work while I enjoy a Frappucino," says a student in a cap and a hooded sweatshirt.
"I like to listen to music when I work and it helps me focus, so I think it will be really helpful," says a girl with a half-shaved head.
In student surveys taken after the event, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Virtual "attendance" was 98 percent for the day, better than a regular day.
Teachers, says Bacolas, were a bit less gung-ho. "We definitely have a population of teachers who are older, who were overly upset and cautious" about trying to teach through the platform alone. But 60 percent of teachers said the experiment pushed them to learn a new tech skill or software feature, and 70 percent used the day to introduce new material, not just review.
For this first-time experiment, teachers were required to come to school, and the building kept to the typical bell schedule, with virtual lessons held in real time.
About 50 students, or fewer than 10 percent of the student body, showed up. They told Bacolas that home wasn't a great place for them to learn because, among other reasons, "My baby brother is distracting"; "My mom has three dogs"; and, "I have soccer right after school so I might as well show up."
Nationwide, about 400,000 K-12 students are taking or have taken at least one fully online course, and far more schools are using platforms like Schoology to provide online assignments outside of traditional school hours. By and large the format seems to work well for students who use it as an occasional supplement, as Park Ridge High is doing — for example, to take an AP course that their school doesn't offer. Completely virtual schools, studies say, tend to have worse outcomes as a group.
Having a work-from-home day wouldn't work as well in some districts as it did in affluent Bergen County, where the principal said "99 percent" of students have high-speed Internet access at home.
A recent survey of low-income families with school-age kids by Rutgers University and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center found that nearly 1 in 4 relied on mobile phones only for Internet use at home.
Working from home also didn't work as well for a small number of students at Park Ridge: those who have special needs and require one-on-one, face-to-face support to stay on track.
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