Winter has been hammering certain regions of the U.S. this year, burying some cities in foot after foot of snow and resulting in a backlog of missed school days that will have to be tacked on to the schedule in the summer months. But there are some parts of the country where school doesn't stop for snow days, schools where students are expected to log-in from home so that the learning can continue — even when school buildings are closed.

From Pennsylvania to Kentucky, many districts are adopting virtual learning programs that allow students to keep on learning even when the weather outside is frightful. Using virtual learning, students and teachers can log online to e-classrooms that stand in for the brick-and-mortar versions when school buildings are closed. Teachers can lecture, students can ask questions, and everyone can participate in discussions — all from the comfort and safety of home.

Virtual learning has its critics (and more than a few obstacles to overcome), but proponents are hopeful that the kinks can be worked out. One major problem with virtual learning programs is making sure that all students have access to computers and the Internet. For some school districts, such as Pascack Valley Regional High School District in northeast New Jersey, fewer than 10 of the 2,000 students lack Internet access at home. But in other areas, the numbers are less encouraging. Delphi Community High School in Delphi, Indiana, solves this problem by loaning laptops to all students who don't have one when the next day's weather looks bad.

Another issue with virtual learning is getting kids to sign in when their sleds and snowsuits are calling. In a recent interview with NPR, Ralph Walker, superintendent of the Delphi school district, admitted that there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to enticing kids to come to school when schools are closed. "You know, the first day we had about 100 percent of the kids involved in e-learning," Walker says. "Well, then, after the fourth day, we were down to about 55 percent of the children."

And then there's the problem of getting these virtual school days to count toward the mandatory 180-day school year. In many areas, laws state that school buildings must be open for schools to count the day, but many chalk this up to a simple need to update the laws, which were written before virtual learning was a possibility. 

In Kentucky’s Owsley County, schools will be allowed to count as many as 10 days of virtual learning as regular school days that do not have to be made up later in the academic year. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has adopted similar regulations, with a pilot program that will allow school districts to use “non-traditional educational delivery methods” for up to five days this school year, if the schools can meet several conditions and get a plan approved by the state. Similar proposals are in place in school districts around the country.

So will virtual learning make snow days a thing of the past? With more students online and with school districts growing increasingly comfortable with the level of instruction that can be achieved at home, it seems likely that schools will adopt virtual learning programs that take away the hassle and headache of school cancelations due to snow. But I have to admit, while I applaud this innovation, I can't help but also feel sorry for the future generation of kids who may never know the pure joy of looking out the window, seeing a blanket of snow and realizing the gift of an unplanned day off from school.

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Virtual learning may make snow days a thing of the past
Across the country, school districts are adopting e-learning programs that may help eliminate the hassle (and joy) of snow day cancellations.