- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

HILLSDALE, N.J. (AP) - Last year, as a snowstorm blanketed North Jersey, Pascack Valley Regional High School District attempted something that, at the time, was considered unique - a “virtual school day.” Ultimately, the New Jersey Department of Education decided the day would not count as a full school day, but that hasn’t stopped the district - and a neighboring school system - from trying again.

The Record (https://bit.ly/1QVAnge ) reports that both high schools in the Pascack Valley Regional High School District and Park Ridge High School are planning “virtual school days” for their students next month. This will be Park Ridge’s first attempt to host a virtual school day, while Pascack Valley is fine-tuning its original plan.

Pascack Valley, which has two high schools for students in Hillsdale, River Vale, Woodcliff Lake and Montvale, will have two virtual school days on Feb. 3 and Feb 4. Park Ridge will have its virtual school day on Feb. 8.

“No one wants to be the person who takes away all snow days for kids - that’s a sense of innocence and joy - but when you are bombarded with a winter like we had a year or two ago, it would be nice to be able to keep your school calendar intact,” Pascack Valley Regional High School District Superintendent Erik Gundersen said. “More importantly than that, I think the world in front of us is becoming more and more a world where you’re able to work and function digitally and you don’t necessarily have to be engaged with the people you work with - or your teacher - 100 percent of the time in a face-to-face environment. That is what we are trying to prepare our students for.”

In February 2014 Pascack Valley instituted a districtwide virtual school day during a snowstorm - where students logged onto their laptops and received instruction from teachers and assignments that could be completed over the Internet.

While the first virtual day was considered a success by the district, Department of Education officials did not count it as an official day of school because state law requires facilities to be open to count as a school day.

With this in mind, both Pascack Valley and Park Ridge have refocused their experiment.

In November both Gundersen and Park Ridge Superintendent Robert Gamper sent a joint-letter to the New Jersey Department of Education explaining the changes that will be made with the new virtual days and their intent to share the data they glean from it with the state department.

The virtual days in both districts will be optional - students can either log on at home or come to school as they normally would. Teachers will be in all of the facilities, the buildings will be open and the cafeterias will be serving food. This change, officials from both districts said, should keep them in line with state regulations.

The school officials said the Department of Education was “excited” they were planning virtual days and wanted to hear about the school’s experiences.

“We are interested in piloting this and giving students a sense of what the future could be like for them, whether it’s an online classroom in college or the workforce that they will enter in the future,” Gamper said. “This experience is something we want to build upon to get our students ready for college and beyond.”

While the two districts have slightly different plans to implement the virtual days, the officials said they hope to compare and analyze data gathered from each other to improve in the future.

Park Ridge will have a “full day” online where students will log in to different classes on a normal schedule through a learning management program. Pascack Valley is having two “abbreviated days,” where half of the day will be scheduled instruction, and the second half of the day will be time for students to complete work that has been assigned to them.

Gundersen said the decision to have two split days was made after reviewing student and teacher feedback from the previous virtual day in 2014. Students expressed an overload of assignments, he said.

“We had many students that said, ‘I did more work on the virtual day than I ever had on a regular day,’” Gundersen said. “You have to be careful of that, because if this is something we want to experiment with, it has to be palpable for students and teachers.”

In addition, during the last virtual day different teachers used different learning management programs - which caused confusion among students. This year, all teachers use one program.

The virtual days are an ongoing experiment, officials said, but they are important for the districts moving forward.

“We want to see if we can engage in blended curriculum in the future - whether it’s a course or two, or perhaps, as a region of schools, offering courses we typically couldn’t offer in just one small school,” Gundersen said.

After the virtual days in February, both districts intend to get feedback from students and staff and then discuss the differences between the different styles to see what works best.

“The big piece here is to get the feedback from parents, students, staff, admin,” Gamper said. “Being able to evaluate exactly how much learning took place on that one day will be difficult, but it’s the feedback that we will receive that will allow us to see where we can improve and make it a better day in the future for everyone involved.”

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