- Schools are facing extreme numbers of weather cancellations this year
- Some schools are trying virtual school days to prevent learning interruptions
- Individual educators have turned to online learning to keep students on track
(CNN)Earlier this month, Zak Terzini roused himself about five minutes before his English class began and didn't panic. Instead, the high school sophomore grabbed his iPod and checked on a class discussion of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" without even getting out of bed.
A snowstorm -- another one -- had canceled classes in the Pascack Valley Regional High School District in northern New Jersey, but educators and students wouldn't be taking a day off. Before the snow fell, even before the official school cancellation call, teachers were prepped, parents were warned and students had received enough assignments to fill a snow day.
School leaders around the country are tearing up their calendars to cram in more teaching time after extreme numbers of weather cancellations. Some are eliminating holiday breaks and professional development plans, adding minutes and days to the school clock or even cutting recess and opening school on Saturdays.
But a few are trying something different: virtual school days that continue learning, even while staff and students are stuck at home.
This could be the snow day of the not-too-distant future. As much as students love them, school officials loathe calamity cancellations, those days off caused by snowstorms, hurricanes, illness outbreaks or power outages. They cost time and money, disrupt the flow of learning and leave parents in a lurch.
By mid-February, the 2,000-student Pascack Valley Regional district had already used its three built-in snow days for the school year, and Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen didn't want to chip away at spring break.
With snow in the forecast, Gundersen alerted teachers that he expected to cancel classes and asked them to develop lessons students could complete from home. A day later, when students logged in on school-provided laptops, they were able to ask teachers questions, work through assignments or jump into class discussions, even if they sometimes took breaks to shovel the walkways.
Pascack Valley Regional officials still don't know if the day will count toward their state-mandated total. The New Jersey Department of Education hasn't decided yet. But the superintendent already counts it as a learning success.
"We think it's worthwhile and productive, why not do it?" Gundersen said. "This is what we've been doing in the corporate world for quite some time ... balancing family life with work and getting things done. Why shouldn't high school kids?"
'We're lucky, right?'
Schools in similar circumstances are coming to the same conclusion. Staff and students at Coyle and Cassidy High School in Taunton, Massachusetts, tried their first virtual school days after cancellations began to pile up this year.
They were ready. All of the private school's 500 students now have an iPad purchased by his or her parents, and they've used the tablets in class and at home since the start of the school year.
They were lucky, too, to have the "perfect snow days," said Kathleen St. Laurent, vice principal of academic affairs at Coyle and Cassidy -- no widespread power outages, no long stretches of days off, a forecast that gave teachers time to prepare and a student body that already knew the drill.
Teachers found creative ways to record and share lessons, and many spent the virtual days fielding students' questions, St. Laurent said. Parents loved it, and students, well, they "were a little bummed out."
Many slept in, and some complained there was too much work -- there will be more coordination among teachers in the future, St. Laurent said. Still, participation was high.
"With kids, a day out is a lot," St. Laurent said. "This way, everyone could have the same lessons, just as if they were in the classroom."
Going into Pascack Valley Regional's virtual school day, teachers feared some students wouldn't log in, despite warnings that the day's assignments would count toward their grades. It wasn't a problem: The virtual school day had higher attendance than they expect on a normal school day, the superintendent said.
"It was energizing, invigorating," said social studies teacher Karen Kosch, who has taught in Pascack Valley schools for 28 years. "I don't mean to sound corny, but we were all in it together."
No serious technical glitches were reported. Next time, Kosch said, she'll have a stronger sense about how to pace conversations held among dozens of kitchen tables and couches.
As one student put it, Kosch said, " 'I don't know what the big fuss is. We do this every day.' "
Kosch, of course, remembers the years before everyone had a laptop, but she had to agree: "We're lucky, right?"
'This is a vacation day'
In areas where weather cancellations are common, students have long been expected to haul home backpacks full of books and assignments before snow days, and some schools have tried to lighten the load through technology. In Ohio, schools can use "blizzard bags," online or hard copies of assignments to keep students learning and days counting.
Even at schools that provide an online bank of activities, it can be complicated to keep an entire class moving forward, said Dick Flanary, deputy executive director for programs and services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
"Technology offers some promise in terms of mitigating some impact," Flanary said. "Depending on a particular child, what kind of learner a child may be, how diligent will they be to engage on a snow day in some sort of academic pursuit when 'this is a vacation day'?"
Tougher yet is the technology. Most schools don't have one-to-one programs that supply students and staff with computers, and home Internet connections can still be spotty. Teachers polled for a 2013 survey by Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project said more than half of students had sufficient access to digital tools at school, but only a fifth could access digital tools at home.
Even without schoolwide technology programs, individuals teachers are finding ways to keep their students on track.
The day before a February snowstorm swept through the Atlanta area, teacher Jordan Kohanim sent her students home with the same instructions she repeated all year: Check the class website.
Most of her students at Northview High School outside Atlanta have made it a habit, and with the help of tools such as Remind101, a service that allows teachers to send text messages to students, she was confident they would follow through. When an earlier stretch of bad weather caught schools by surprise, several students checked the website and completed assignments without her asking, she said.
It's not the highest quality education out there, Kohanim said -- there's little chance for interaction when students are asked to read a passage, watch a video and write a response. But Kohanim made herself available to answer questions and check work, and it helped to keep students focused until they returned the following week.
"I wouldn't say I'd like that to go on for long," said Kohanim, who has maintained a class website since she started teaching seven years ago. "We don't have time to stop on snow days. We have to keep moving."
'A nerd's dream'
On the morning of February 13, Pascack Valley High School English teacher Matt Morone was maybe a quarter of the way through his morning coffee when students began to respond to "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" on Twitter. Some teachers used Google documents or learning tools such as My Big Campus, Schoology or Canvas for the virtual school day, but he especially liked seeing the conversation draw people who weren't even in his class.
"This was a nerd's dream for me," said Morone, himself a graduate of Pascack Valley Regional schools.
For students, it was a lesson in time management and self-driven learning, one he's sure they'll take to college. For teachers, it was a chance to try ideas they've only pondered before. For everyone else? Proof.
"We are in a fortunate position here ... but you don't need a whole lot of infrastructure to do some of the stuff we're doing," Morone said. "There are means by which to do this. A lot of Twitter discussion is through iPads, cell phones -- whichever glowing rectangle you want to use, that's fine."
Students were learning other lessons, too.
Zak Terzini discovered he had to be concise because he only had 140 characters to make his point about "Malcolm X." He listened more, too. He's "a talker," he said -- an athlete, the class president, a guy who's always ready to jump in with an opinion.
Online, he finally heard some quieter classmates speak up.
"Having it all out on Twitter, people have that little barrier," he said. "It was kind of open to a lot more opinions."
Between shoveling snow, watching an Olympic hockey game and making himself a sandwich, he listened to a teacher explain some algebra concepts, completed some history work and forced himself to figure out some stoichiometry problems that he might've given up on if he'd been in the same room as the chemistry teacher.
"I thought, 'We're just going to get extra homework.' It was kind of ridiculous to have a virtual day," he said. "But the mood definitely changed after it went successfully. They got us involved. They were assigning the right amount of work.
"I got done at 2:51, and I can't believe I actually got done."
Would you want virtual school days to replace traditional snow days in your area? Tell us why or why not in the comments, on Twitter @CNNschools or on CNN Living's Facebook page!