When snow closes schools in Transylvania County, students often don’t get the day off. They go to school – virtually – without leaving home.

Now in year two of an initiative that uses digital technology to overcome the cold realities of winter weather, the mountainous district southwest of Asheville is keeping students learning while also avoiding the need to schedule unpopular make-up days, when attendance can be spotty.

Students in Transylvania County’s middle and high schools and a few elementary grades all have Chromebooks under the school district’s 1:1 laptop program, equipping each with a resource for school and home use in any weather. Elementary-grade students are sent home with “blizzard bags” ahead of time when snow or ice threatens. Blizzard Bags contain daily assignments for as long as a week or more.

Jeff McDaris, superintendent of Transylvania County Schools, says his district’s “Virtual Days” are helping to keep students fresh and on track.

“We are using technology for teaching and instruction and making the day a meaningful learning opportunity,” McDaris says. “On a snow day – if students are going to be out anyway – why not work with our parents as partners and provide a learning opportunity while they are at home.”

So far this winter, students have had two Virtual Days. The district had five in 2015-16, the first year of the initiative. In each of the two previous years, Transylvania schools were closed for eight days because of snow – a challenge that led the district to launch the innovative Virtual Day alternative.

Middle and high school students work independently to complete assignments they access online or from files downloaded in advance in case of power loss or a lack of Internet access. Elementary school students complete “blizzard bag” assignments, which can also be accessed online.

Teachers plan their Virtual Day assignments so they can be finished within a four-hour period – equivalent to the length of the Saturday make-up day that the district has scheduled in the past. Teachers are available to students online or by email during the four-hour period for questions and help.

Meredith Licht, who teaches English, social studies and journalism at Brevard High School, says she thinks students benefit more from her Virtual Day assignments than conventional Saturday make-up days, which families may struggle to accommodate.

“Attendance is higher on Virtual Days,” Licht says, “and you can give students more meaningful work because everyone is on an equal footing.” Since not all students have home access to the Internet, students have a few days to submit their assignments. That’s how attendance is measured, she says.

Unlike typical homework assignments intended to reinforce class work, assignments for Virtual Days do more to advance student work and learning.

“We’re trying to carry on instruction instead of repeating things that we’ve already taught,” Licht says. Teachers invest time in advance planning meaningful assignments to ensure that they’re logical extensions of instruction in their courses.

There’s also room for spontaneity. For her journalism class, Licht made one Virtual Day assignment last month a snow-day photo essay.

Make-up day challenges aside, the district also is using its Virtual Days to help reinforce the use of technology as a critical tool for teaching and learning, McDaris says.

“If we are to prepare our students for 21st century jobs and interaction,” he says, “we know that involves increasing online opportunities. We hear that from former students in college, the military, and in the job market.”

Teachers and students in Transylvania County’s schools continue to integrate technology every day, says Cathy Zandecki, instructional technology coordinator for the district. Virtual Days are possible because of extensive training and support provided to teachers as part of the district’s 1:1 initiative, funded partly by the county and a grant from the Golden Leaf Foundation.

“Learning how to deliver course content online has been important to ensure students are using their devices as an instructional tool not just at school but also at home,” Zandecki said. “Our instructional staff have continued to deliver online courses via a learning management system, such as Moodle and currently Google Classroom, while also maximizing blended learning strategies.”

Zandecki says that leadership and support from the district’s administration is a critical factor driving the effective use of technology in Transylvania’s schools by ensuring that administrators, teachers and other instructional staff have the skills they need.

“Our teachers have really stepped up to the plate by using digital tools and resources daily for instruction and assessment,” she says. “Virtual Days, which were initiated by Dr. McDaris, were certainly the next step to ensure a streamlined approach to learning without interruption even during snow days.”

Vera Cubero, instructional technology facilitator at Brevard and Rosman high schools, says the district strongly encourages teachers to use Google Classroom on a daily basis, and especially for Virtual Day content delivery.

“Teachers can communicate with students as well as create, share, collect, give feedback, and return assignments paperlessly,” Cubero says. “It’s very user friendly for teachers and students as well.”