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Mixed marks for Farmington's flexible learning days

Farmington’s first digital learning day wasn’t without its bumps and false starts. But the stay-at-home make-up day on President’s Day went well enough that snow days filled with game shows and video games are likely a thing of the past in the district.

From now on, superintendent Jay Haugen said, announcements of weather-related school closures will come with another message: check online for the day’s assignments. Instead of playing in the snow, students can spend the day working on math assignments or getting a history lesson.

The district held its first digital learning day last week in response to the cancellation of five school days due to extreme cold earlier this winter. The second came just four days later when the season’s biggest storm shut down schools for a sixth day.

The flexible learning days, which the district had discussed even before this school year then put on hold, were a way to take advantage of the iPads the district has put in every student’s hands and to make up some lost time without having to find another day to bring students to school.

Teachers put together what they thought was a day’s worth of work that students could do at home. Students were expected to get the assignments done on their own time.

“One thing became clear — we have a lot of staff now and students that just do this naturally,” Haugen said. “Whether we say we would be having a flexible learning day, we have a lot of staff and students that just keep learning anyway.”

The district has been moving toward self-directed learning ever since it made the decision to provide an iPad to every student. But Haugen said this year’s harsh winter has helped move things along.

Flexible learning days are not likely to ever replace class time. They’re a way to make sure students keep working when the weather is bad.

“We would have gotten here. We would have done these things. But it would have been something we planned and did thoughtfully,” Haugen said. “It was just this extraordinary opportunity.”

That speeding up of the process meant things didn’t go entirely according to plan last week. Haugen said he heard directly from 10 or 12 parents who were unhappy with the flexible learning day. There were concerns some teachers assigned too much work, and that others didn’t assign any at all. Some of the assignments required too much supervision from parents, and teachers were unresponsive, parents said.

Haugen heard from about the same number of parents who said they liked the digital learning day.

The Independent Town Pages heard much the same in response to a question on its Farmington Facebook page.

Supporters of the flexible learning days liked the fact their kids had a chance to learn on Friday’s snow day rather than watching TV or playing video games.

“They had their own work to do, and I got to be there to see what they each do,” parent Stefanie Cuevas wrote. “The technology use in the house for useless stuff is down and then they went out to play. The first round was a bit much, this time much better.”

Other parents felt differently.

“I don’t believe that giving the kids more homework replaces the learning and instruction that they would get in a classroom with a teacher,” parent Lisa Silber wrote.

Parent Hilary Moorlach, a teacher in another nearby district, saw potential in the digital learning days, but said some of the assignments her children brought home seemed more like busywork — worksheets and quizzes — than useful assignments.

Haugen sent a message to parents last week to address some of their concerns. He sent a separate message to teachers to let them know how the first attempt at a digital learning day had gone and to suggest adjustments for future attempts.

Several parents who commented on the Facebook post said the workload was better Friday than it was Monday.

“I certainly was encouraged,” Haugen said. “It just reminds you how new this all is. You have to be patient.

“When I heard reports back of all the really good stuff that was happening, I knew we could do this.”

Nathan Hansen

Nathan Hansen has been a reporter and editor with the Farmington Independent and the Rosemount Town Pages since 1997. He is very tall.

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