Caleb Seely rides a unicycle on a snow covered sidewalk as he heads home after helping shovel out his brother's driveway during a winter storm in Portland, Jan. 20, 2019. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

For the 2019-20 academic year, the Maine Department of Education will allow qualifying public schools to do one-day tests of “remote days” when students and staff work from home or other safe places rather than canceling school because of snow.

The “anytime-anywhere learning” day will count as one of the 175 instructional days required by law, according to a newsletter posted on the Maine Department of Education website. This means that the remote school day would not have to be made up at the end of the year or by lengthening school days when class cancellations push the total number of days when schools are open to less than 175 days.

[Maine school district extends its school day to make up for snow days]

Previously, the department did not allow remote school days to count toward the minimum 175-day requirement. Giving school districts a chance to pilot a remote school day is “an effort to promote and encourage innovative practices in districts and schools,” the newsletter stated.

Last month, a combined school district in the Camden area held the first remote school day in Maine non-charter public schools. The district’s superintendent received a Department of Education exemption in January to hold at least one remote school day across the district.

The district’s high school, Camden Hills Regional High School, was allowed to hold a second remote school day on Monday — when a winter storm would otherwise have canceled classes — because the school had 177 days worked into its calendar.

[Snow canceled classes, but these Maine students still had to do schoolwork]

“I think [remote school days are] just a logical idea for the state of Maine, which gets a lot of snow. Our kids have the technology, it just makes sense,” Five Town Community School District and Municipal School Administrative District 28 Superintendent Maria Libby said.

To use a remote school day for the 2019-20 school year, districts must meet several requirements, including ensuring there is access and equity for all students throughout the day, providing free breakfast and lunch for eligible students, and having the support of the school board, staff and community.

School officials wanting to use a remote school day in their district will have submit an application to the Department of Education proving that they have met all of the requirements.

Department of Education officials have been exploring “anytime-anywhere” learning practices since last year. The new guidelines come after consultation with the department’s nutrition, enrollment and special services teams to ensure the guidance is in compliance with existing laws, Department of Education spokeswoman Rachel Paling said.

After implementing one district-wide remote school day, Libby said the district’s pilot project was a success based on overall attendance and feedback from students, staff and parents.

“I’m really happy with how it turned out. I think it was really, really effective,” Libby said.

Libby said attendance for the remote school day — based on submitted assignments and check ins with teachers — was higher than the average on a traditional school day. Libby said this was likely due to the fact that if students were sick, they were still able to work from home.

Following the remote school day, a survey was sent out to staff, parents and high school students in the district. In response to a question asking whether a remote school day would be preferred to going one day later into the summer, 95 percent of elementary school staff, 100 percent of middle school staff, and 98 percent of high school staff said a remote school day would be the better option, according to Libby.

About 85 percent of the parents, and 76 percent of high schoolers who responded to the survey said they would rather have a remote school day over extending the school year.

Libby said she took one complaint from a student as the biggest compliment: The work done during a remote school day was just like a normal school day.

“The whole point for us was to not miss a beat and to not have that interruption in learning,” Libby said.

With the Department of Education allowing more schools to try remote school days next year, Libby said this could be a great opportunity for Maine schools to test innovative learning practices.

Libby acknowledges that other districts might face challenges in implementing this type of learning, such as encountering problems while trying to ensure that all students have access to internet during the remote school day. The Camden-based school district was able to purchase internet hotspots for any student who did not have internet access at home.

But Libby said she is happy the conversation about remote school days is at least happening at the state level and believes there are solutions to these potential hurdles.

“I do feel this has gotten the ball rolling,” Libby said.