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Students leave Washington Elementary after school Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, in north Fargo. A North Dakota bill being drafted would have students in virtual classrooms rather than taking a snow day off. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

Legislators draft bill to replace snow days with virtual classrooms

BISMARCK — What began as a class project has led to a bill to be presented in the upcoming North Dakota legislative session about how school make-up days can be eliminated.

Jamestown legislators Rep. Bernie Satrom and Rep. James Grueneich, both Republican, decided to research and draft a bill that will replace make-up days with virtual classrooms on the cancelled days at brick-and-mortar schools.

The idea stems from a solution to snow days from Kirsten Landenburger's fourth-grade class at Louis L'Amour Elementary School in Jamestown.

"We did some research on it and what we could do,” Grueneich said. “What we came up with was most of the schools have the technology or the ability to do online instruction.”

Teachers in North Dakota are required to teach their classes a minimum of 180 days in the school year. Cancellations due to extreme weather and other factors add up, often causing districts to hold make-up days at the end of the school year. Having this virtual classroom as an option would allow teachers to fulfill those days and not skip a beat in teaching due to snow or student illness.

Some of the questions the representatives had were answered by the North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction Kirsten Baesler, who also helped research the issue. She said DPI can help with anything legislators need to continue the conversation to fixing make-up days.

"DPI will totally be there to provide resources, advice, statistics and data," Baesler said.

It may be easy to think that asking for a day of forgiveness or a day off may not be so bad, but it may hurt taxpayers more than one thinks, according to Baesler.

"I remember one time the Bismarck School District couldn't ask the governor just to forgive that day. She (the Bismarck superintendent) estimated it would cost the school district a quarter of a million dollars. That's just for one day of forgiveness, so you multiply that by all these school districts, that can add up," Baesler said.

Grueneich emphasizes the bill proposes starting as a pilot program to see how it goes with a few districts. He said they could allow for an opt-in, opt-out option for schools who may not be able or want to participate in the snow-day alternative. He predicts taxpayers wouldn't be affected if school districts transition to this idea.

"It should end up saving taxpayer dollars if we don't have to make up school days. You know, most students have a laptop or have an iPad,” Grueneich said. “There's obviously some details and some nuts and bolts that would have to get worked out, but we want the discussion to get started.”

Satrom said virtual teaching could allow teachers to teach subjects in smaller schools that may not be able to hire staff and that it would also be on the right track for what Gov. Doug Burgum wants for the future of North Dakota education.

"I'm expecting that we'll have tremendous support," Satrom said.

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