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Many schools closed when snow fell in the Upstate in January. Here, a group takes on the hill at Dorman High School. But several South Carolina districts are replacing snow days with e-learning days this school year. Alex Hicks/Spartanburg Herald-Journal

COLUMBIA — When the weather outside is frightful, students in a few South Carolina school districts won't find their day so delightful. 

Five districts are replacing snow days this school year with online class days in a pilot program that could be an option statewide next year.

If schools in Anderson 5, Kershaw County, Pickens County, Spartanburg 1 or Spartanburg 7 close because of snow — or any other bad weather — students could be expected to use computers and tablets to complete assignments.  

"It's not going to be like a substitute teacher, watch-a-video day," said John Eby, spokesman for Pickens County schools. "The lesson will be tied to standards that would be taught in class that week."

The idea isn't new. Neighboring Georgia and North Carolina are among states that already allow districts to use online learning days when classes are called off.

Snowier states that give the option include Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky and Indiana, according to the Education Commission of the States. 

Proponents see the so-called "eLearning" days as an obvious solution in an increasingly technological age where tablets are replacing textbooks and many students already do homework on school-supplied laptops.

South Carolina has allowed schools to solely use digital materials in core subjects since 2013, and most schools now use a combination of print and digital.  

"They’ve got the technology. How do you integrate it at home, that’s the question," said Melanie Barton, director of the Education Oversight Committee, which the Legislature tasked with creating and testing the pilot program.

Last school year, districts across the state closed between two and seven days because of Hurricane Irma, flooding and wintry weather, while building problems such as power outages or plumbing mishaps meant even more down time for some schools, according to the state Education Department.  

After such interruptions, teachers often must repeat at least parts of lessons to refresh students' memories, so even more time is lost, said Bruce Friend, chief operating officer of Virginia-based iNACOL, a nonprofit that promotes online learning.

By state law, districts must build three potential make-up days into their schedules, but those often come months after the missed class time.

Even education officials acknowledge that if days are tacked on late in the school year, after state-standardized testing, there's little learning taking place.

Closures beyond three days can be erased from the school calendar altogether. Charleston County students lost the most time in 2017-18, with four days waived district-wide. Six days were struck for East Cooper Montessori Charter.

"With this program, instead of having to forgive days and give makeup assignments, hopefully we'll get more learning in," Eby said. "I’m sure there will be moaning and groaning from high-schoolers, but hey, we’re here to educate young minds."

State officials know each district will have its own set of challenges getting online days started — from teacher training to a lack of internet access at some homes. The early grades may be the trickiest. 

"K-2 is where a lot of students don’t have Chromebooks," Barton said. "Do we do apps on the phone? How do we engage the young students? We’ll have to proceed carefully."

In Pickens County, many middle school students get grant-funded, high-speed internet access at home, and every 4th- through 12th-grader has a school-issued Chromebook.  

"A lot can be done through the device that wasn’t imaginable a few years ago," Eby said.  

Pickens County is the largest district testing the program, with more than 16,000 students. Spartanburg 1 is the smallest, with 5,100 students, while Spartanburg 7 has the most students living in poverty, at nearly 70 percent districtwide.

The variations should show how different schools can make eLearning days work, Barton said.

Her state agency limited the pilot to five districts. Those slots were filled before Berkeley County's application came in last Friday. No other districts applied.

While the Upstate is more likely to face wintry weather, it's the participating Midlands district, Kershaw County, that state officials will look to most for help with the details. 

Superintendent Shane Robbins came to Kershaw last month from Indiana, where he guided two different districts in using that state's online option. 

In Kershaw County, every student has a school-issued laptop, though kindergartners through second-graders don't take theirs home. That will change this year.

Students without internet access will still be able to access their assignments offline and can call a hotline for help, then upload their finished assignments once they get back to school, he said.  

"The kid part of this is not hard," Robbins said. "It’s the (adult) part that’s more of a struggle."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.