For three Catholic schools, 'Cyber Days' replace old snow days

The digital age giveth and it taketh away.

For students in northern climes, the ritual of turning on the TV or radio on winter mornings, aquiver with the anticipation of a snow day declaration -- indeed the snow day itself -- may be threatened by the inexorable march of technological progress.

Several local Catholic schools have substituted "Cyber Days" for snow days, taking advantage of ubiquitous Internet access among their students to avoid losing instructional time to winter weather.

With temperatures plunging to record lows Tuesday, Seton-LaSalle Catholic High School in Mt. Lebanon experimented with the concept for the first time, Principal Lauren Martin said.

All 510 students at the ninth-12th grade school get a Chromebook, a relatively inexpensive laptop computer that uses Web-based applications, with their tuition, which runs about $9,000 a year for Catholic students and $9,500 for non-Catholics.

Teachers emailed assignments to students or directed them to websites set up for the day. Assignments were required to be posted by 10 a.m., students had to log in by noon so attendance could be tracked, and the work was due at 5 p.m., Mrs. Martin said.

"I think for our first day, it went pretty well," she said. "Overall, the response was very positive."

Mrs. Martin said the school worked with Serra Catholic High in McKeesport, which launched the same initiative last year, to develop the program.

However, Quigley Catholic in Baden declared victory over the snow day five years ago.

Mitch Yanyanin, the school's athletic director and technology coordinator, said Madonna Helbling, the former principal, was tired of losing time to snow and ice during a particularly frosty winter, and, as another storm was bearing down, gave him a directive.

"Figure out how the kids can go to school online, don't spend any money and have it done by Thursday," Mr. Yanyanin says he was told. Quigley, a school of about 150 students in grades 9-12, does not provide take-home computers. Rather, it polled its students on whether they had Internet access at home.

They didn't quite make the tight deadline, but Mr. Yanyanin says the school was a pioneer in the concept and hasn't lost time to a snow day in about five years.

Quigley also declares cyber days on half-days, such as teacher work days, and teachers have incorporated YouTube videos and other media into their lessons. Students initially balk at the idea of working on a snow day but later appreciate not having to cut into vacations or add days in June, Mr. Yanyanin said.

However, don't expect the idea to make the leap to local public schools just yet.

Steve Robinson, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said the organization was unaware of any public schools using online instruction on snow days.

And Tim Eller, a spokesman for the Department of Education, said the state has not signed off on the idea yet and allowed such instruction to count toward the required 180 school days.

"The department's concern is whether all students would have access to the needed hardware and software, whether special-education students would be accommodated and whether there would be an integrated approach to providing cyber instruction on short notice for all subjects," Mr. Eller said.

Robert Zullo: or 412-263-3909.

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