A growing share of the U.S. labor force works from home, and some tech-savvy school districts are taking note.
For example, Park Ridge High School in New Jersey recently held its first “virtual day,” allowing most of its 561 students to log in to school from the comfort of their bedrooms or kitchen tables.
“The main reason we’re doing this is to prepare students for life after high school,” said Principal Troy Lederman. “Almost every college has some type of online or virtual course, and a lot of companies now tell employees they can work remotely, so we are exposing students to that.”
For more than a decade, districts have offered online courses, given students their own computing devices, and embraced “blended” classrooms that merge face-to-face with computer-based instruction. In recent years, states such as Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania have approved laws that allow schools to leverage those technologies via e-learning days in response to health scares, snowstorms, and other emergencies.
The new “work from home” days, though, are planned, whole-school events with goals ranging from promoting student independence to making time for staff professional development to saving money on school energy and transportation costs.
Hosting virtual days isn’t easy for some key reasons. Some state policies and local labor contracts make it difficult to find such flexibility in the school calendar and allowing students to work from home can place a heavy burden on parents. Also, students without home internet access are at a disadvantage.
Given the stunningly poor academic track records of many full-time online schools, some parents and educators doubt that e-learning days will prove to be effective. Still, digital-learning proponents are enthusiastic about the concept.
With nearly 4 million U.S. employees now working from home at least half time, it makes sense for schools to experiment with more flexible days, say experts who study the changing workplace.
“We’re becoming more mobile all the time,” said Kate Lister, the president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research and consulting group. “That genie is not going back in the bottle.”
A rocky start
Despite quite a bit of hoopla, Park Ridge’s recent virtual day got off to a rocky start.
Although most students were off-campus, they were expected to access an online learning-management system via the district’s network, which buckled under the sudden strain of hundreds of users attempting to log in at once.
And even with weeks of planning and training, some teachers essentially posted digital worksheets online for their students to complete.
Some staff members, including physics teacher Golda Steiner, also expressed bemusement at the day’s premise.
“Truthfully, I don’t think it’s a great idea,” said the 24-year veteran educator.
“It’s much more fun when the students are here and I can ask questions based on what they’re discovering,” Steiner said, sitting alone with a laptop inside her empty classroom.
By midday, though, Park Ridge educators and students seemed to have mostly settled into their temporary new routine. Second-year teacher Robert Andresen moderated a live text chat among the 9th graders in his world-cultures class, occasionally pacing around the room to keep himself from dominating the online discussion.
“One of the key benefits is that it allows them more time to assess what they have to do,” Andresen said. “They don’t have to have an immediate reaction to me, and some of the fear of [public speaking] is lost when the discussion moves online.”
Meanwhile, a half-mile away, sophomore Claire Perez and a small group of friends, still clad in slippers and sweatpants, sat at Perez’s kitchen table, laptops open. Three of the girls logged in to their American literature class.
The day’s virtual lesson: using Twitter to research a topic, communicate with peers and experts, and practice writing concisely.
Sophomore Alli Uhl said she appreciated the change of pace.
“Talking about [an issue] in class is OK, but on Twitter, I can see what other people are thinking and I can see their responses,” Uhl said. “I’m a visual learner, so I do a lot better when it’s all in front of me.”
Some parents push back
Other districts have taken different approaches to their own work-from-home days.
Instead of following a traditional bell schedule, for example, schools in neighboring Pascack Valley, N.J., recently offered a half day of virtual classes, then allowed students to use the afternoon to work independently from home on their assignments.
The less-structured approach was a reaction to student feedback after an e-learning snow day the district hosted two years ago, said Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen.
“Students said they had never worked more in a single day,” Gundersen said. “We needed to balance our expectations.”
In Minnesota, meanwhile, the 7,000-student Farmington district scheduled four “flex-learning days” this school year.
The good news, said Superintendent Jay Haugen, is that teachers have mostly embraced the new strategy, encouraging students to use the time for community-based research, “genius hour” time in which they explore their own interests, and preparation for presentations. The cash-strapped district has also been able to save a total of about $75,000 by not opening school buildings or running buses on those days, Haugen said.
But Farmington’s virtual days, which are mandatory for all students in grades K-12, have provoked some resistance from working parents and parents of younger children.
“I truly believe the missed socialization time and added costs to our individual family for a day like this is not an effective way to educate our younger children,” one parent wrote on a survey conducted by the district.
Other common lessons that district leaders say they’ve learned involve staff training, lesson planning, and communication with parents.
Researchers who study the U.S. workplace, meanwhile, say they’ve also gleaned insights that may be relevant for schools.
For instance, the work-from-home trend seems likely to grow: About 80 percent of adult workers say they’d like to work remotely at least part time, and employers are embracing that desire for a very pragmatic reason, said Stanford University economics professor Nicholas Bloom.
“The classic fear is that they’ll goof off and watch cartoons all day,” said Bloom, who led a groundbreaking 2014 study of call-center workers at a Chinese travel agency. “We were surprised to find they were significantly more productive, by almost an extra day per week.”
But while overall productivity tends to increase, Bloom said, there is variation among individual workers. Many of the call-center employees chose to return to the office at the end of the study, citing distractions, loneliness, and the desire for face-to-face interactions—the same reasons given by many of the dozens of Park Ridge students who elected to show up for school instead of working from home.
Bloom also noted that working from home seems to work best for two types of employees: professionals who are highly internally motivated by long-term career concerns, and lower-rung employees whose work can be closely monitored.
The risk associated with that dynamic, said Lister of Global Workplace Analytics, is that schools will resort to tracking students because they can, rather than adopting an approach that will help students and staff alike learn what it takes to truly flourish in an online work environment.
“The companies that really get this right understand that it requires a holistic strategy and a culture of trusting people,” she said.
This story was produced by Education Week, a nonprofit, independent news organization with comprehensive pre-K-12 news and analysis.