At Queen Anne School in Upper Marlboro last week, it was virtually business as usual.
Across the region, most students, unable to get to their classrooms, happily spent their time sledding, watching television and doing a little homework now and then. But at the private Queen Anne School, homebound students regularly were attending classes via the Internet, where they could find assignments, homework and live classroom discussions with their teachers and their classmates.
"They gave us a whole lot of work on snow days," said 13-year-old Dwayne Carter, an eighth-grader who spent much of last week planted in front of his home computer in Mitchellville as his teachers took roll, gave him classwork and homework and held discussions via teleconferences and computer chat rooms, depending on what was assigned. Dwayne said he had the same amount of homework and classwork that he would get in a normal week sitting in his seat inside a classroom.
The school began its Cyber Days about four years ago. School officials wanted a way to ensure that students wouldn't lose any time in preparing for Advanced Placement tests because of snow days.
How do students know when it's going to be a "Cyber Day"? If the public schools in Prince George's County shut down for weather-related reasons, the school puts out the word via the media and the school's Web site www.queenanne.org that it is a Code C (for cyberspace) Day. That is the signal to the school's 270 students in grades 6 through 12 that they should log on -- usually around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. -- so that class can begin.
Attendance is mandatory; the only excused absences are illness or a power failure.
"A snow day at our school is not a vacation," said J. Temple Blackwood, headmaster at Queen Anne, which is affiliated with the Episcopal Church.
"We take attendance every day. We have assignments going back and forth, and the students must log in at a certain time. They know that we are not just sending them off to do homework."
Located in a woodsy neighborhood off Route 301, the school is next to the historic St. Barnabas Episcopal Church and Queen Anne's Parish, where in the 18th century the children of prominent residents were educated, including George Washington's stepson. The school was founded in 1964, and since then it has drawn students from across the area. The school's yearly tuition is $14,000.
Tim Steelman, head of Queen Anne's virtual classroom, lives in Mechanicsville in St. Mary's County, about an hour from the 60-acre campus.
When he gets the call early in the morning on snow days from Blackwood he goes into the action.
"Once they establish that it is a Code C day, I e-mail teachers letting them know that it is a Code C and for them to send their materials to me," Steelman said. "The beauty of the whole system is that school can be totally closed but the teachers are meeting with the students."
During the first snowstorm that shut school in December, an 11th-grade English teacher wanted to have a class discussion on the book "The Scarlet Letter," so he notified Steelman and chat room link was established and secured for students to use.
"We were discussing the character of Pearl in 'The Scarlet Letter,' " said Tex Torais, the teacher. "I sent out the invitation to the chat room on an e-mail, and at 10:15, nine out of my 10 students entered the chat room and everybody could see what each other was saying.
"The students had to be prepared for the discussion, because if they hadn't read the book they couldn't have kept up, because they didn't have time to type on the keyboard and flip book pages. The kids were fired up, and afterwards I tailored the homework out of the discussion."
Torais said the one student who was unable to log in was able to obtain all of the notes from the chat room dialogue by going to the school's Web page after the discussion ended.
Drew Mandela, 15, a 10th-grade student at Queen Anne, said the cyberspace lessons didn't prevent him from enjoying last week's snow.
"If you manage your time you can still go outside and sled in the snow," Mandela said.
Steelman said the school, one of a very few in the Washington area utilizing the Internet so extensively, also offers some courses completely online for students who are being home-schooled or who attend schools abroad.
But he acknowledges that such remote access to an education is no substitute for face-to-face contact.
"We value being on campus and being together," Blackwood said. "Our cyber school day is really a stop gap measure as an alternative when it is not safe to travel to school."
Temple emphasized that cyber classroom program is closely monitored and constantly improved to deal with any privacy or security concerns. He said it is very important that students logging in to learn are those actually learning.
Debra Carter, an executive with ABSS Systems in Largo, said that even though her son was home last week, she was grateful for the cyber class because "it was a way for my son to remain in touch with the educational process, and that is so important."
"On snow days kids like to watch TV or play video games, and they fall into a pattern where they get lazy," Carter said. "The cyber days are the best remedy to snow days. So it's a win-win" situation.
Although Dwayne wasn't too thrilled about having so much schoolwork when most of his friends and neighbors didn't, he said he will have the last laugh .
"We don't have to go to school during spring break or at the end of the year to catch up."