The future of snow days

Education. In the era of remote learning, are snow days still important for reasons besides safety... like joy?

08 Jan 2021 | 12:49

When kids woke up to a snow globe world last month, some pulled on snow pants and headed outside for a pre-breakfast snowball fight. Others flipped open laptops and logged in for school.

There were parents who pretended they had no power so their kids could shake free of school obligations. There were teachers who bundled their own kids up to play outside, then watched wistfully through the window as they taught classes virtually from the living room. And there were working parents trying to do their jobs from home, wishing their kids had schoolwork to keep them occupied.

How should schools handle snow days in the era of remote learning? It seems like a little question, but here we are at a fork in the road, contemplating a dilemma about which reasonable minds can wholeheartedly disagree. Now that safety is in many cases a non-issue, are snow days important for other reasons, like joy?

“Everybody’s all over the place?” said Dr. John Bell, superintendent of Delaware Valley School District in Pike County, Pa. “Some are old-fashioned, some are trying to milk it for remote.”

For Bell, the snow day call was straightforward. His relatively rural district has remained open for in-person schooling so far this year, making it a regional outlier. Since the elementary school kids don’t shuttle their school-issued Chromebooks back and forth, they wouldn’t be able to pivot to remote on short notice. Therefore, the district would shut down for snow days – which felt right.

“I decided, let’s keep things as-is,” said Bell. “The whole world is upside-down, maybe we can keep snow days as one thing that’s normal.”

The equation may change, he said, if rising Covid rates force the district to go remote. But for now, “I don’t know if you want to call it a tradition or a rite of passage, but it’s part of being a kid, the excitement of that surprise snow day and having a day just to be a kid.”

New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania have each given schools the green light to reclaim snow days for remote instruction. Pennsylvania was first, passing a law in 2019 that gave districts the option to reclaim up to five days for “flexible instruction” from home, in cases like hazardous weather conditions or – presciently – a disease epidemic. The law prompted the local newspaper headline, “Pennsylvania hates happiness.”

In the changed world of a year later, 39 percent of districts nationwide say they’ve converted snow days to remote learning days, and another 32 percent are considering the change, according to a November survey by Education Week. The move allows districts flexibility in meeting the federal requirement of 180 school days a year, and minimizes additional disruptions to school schedules that have been turbulent since last spring.

It made sense to Goshen Superintendent Daniel Connor. “I’m an old-school guy, I wanted to see the kids engaged and learning,” he said.

Along with other Orange County, N.Y., schools, including Warwick Valley and Monroe-Woodbury, Goshen announced its new protocol to chug along with remote learning on what used to be snow days. (Warwick included a caveat for weather severe enough to threaten safety or power and the internet, in which case an old-school full closure remained a possibility.)

Then, with the first storm of the season storm shaping up into a Category 4 nor’easter, all three districts decided at the eleventh hour to go with a traditional snow day.

“I guess when it came down to it, I was the lone man standing,” said Connor. “There wasn’t anybody else out there doing remote learning on snow days. Everybody else bailed!”

Connor had expected parents to be saying, “Snow days – are you kidding? Keep the kids in remote learning.” As it turned out, the outcry was almost entirely on the other side.

B.J. Boothe, a chemical operator with a daughter in middle school in Goshen, said, “I thought it was ridiculous to entertain the thought of taking away their snow days. After such a difficult year, the kids should be entitled to take a mental health day during a storm, instead of stressing out that they lost power and can’t do their schoolwork. It was a callous decision at best. I don’t understand why they couldn’t take days away from spring break, or something that usually involves travel.”

Back in the fall, a forward-looking student had foreseen this scenario, penning a petition to Goshen Central School District titled “Snow Days are Mental Health Days. Don’t Take Them Away.” By January, it had garnered 930 signatures on change.org. “Snow days give us a mental breather, a day to just enjoy ourselves,” wrote “Abby M.” “This year especially, we need to be going outside and getting active, playing in the snow, having some fun, or just sleeping in and getting some rest, not being stuck inside staring at a screen while our teachers attempt to engage us.”

Connor was happy enough to jump on the bandwagon, calling off school on Dec. 17. “I don’t have all the answers, he said. “I was glad I kind of listened to the troops out there.

Connor, 71, has worked in education for 48 years. “You think you’re doing something right and helping the community, when in fact it was better to give them a snow day,” he said. He’s won over, but now that the district has used up one of its two designated snow days, he said, “We’ll take it day by day.”

“I will admit 100 percent I think it’s the right move, to give the kids the day off,” said Connor. “With everything else we’ve got going on, with the pressure of the situation, I think it gave the kids a chance just to be kids that day again.”

Vernon, N.J., Superintendent Karen D’Avino echoed that sentiment, telling parents, “Please encourage your children to play in the snow.” And the Mahwah, N.J., schools made national news when Interim Superintendent Leonard Fitts wrote in a letter: “We have decided that few childhood acts remain unchanged due to COVID-19 and we will maintain the hope of children by calling actual snow days due to inclement weather. Snow days are chances for on-site learners and virtual learners to just be kids by playing in the snow, baking cookies, reading books, and watching a good movie.”

Not everyone has the freedom to jump in the snow in the middle of a weekday, of course, and some parents were less than thrilled with the snow day call. “As a full-time working parent, snow days for the kids do not equal a snow day for me, so I’d much rather have mine doing schoolwork rather than sitting around,” said Tracy Malloy-Curtis, director of giving at a nonprofit umbrella group and the parent of a Warwick middle schooler. “In any event, school ends by early afternoon so there’s still time for playing.”

Some districts, like West Milford Public Schools in New Jersey, opted for a compromise in the form of an early dismissal, with students logging off by 1:20 p.m. at the latest. “After finishing their school work, our students were able to go outside and enjoy the snow with their family and friends,” said Superintendent Dr. Alex Anemone. “Feedback from parents and staff was overwhelmingly positive.”

‘That luster had been lost a little bit’

While many local districts opted for a snow day on Dec. 17, others quietly soldiered on remotely. For the more than a million students in the New York City public school system, for instance, Mayor Bill DiBlasio called snow days “a thing of the past.”

From a regional perspective, the excitement surrounding the first storm of the season was noticeably deflated, said meteorologist Ben Noll. Noll, 29, who grew up in Orange County, has become something of a local celebrity for his on-point weather forecasts of the Hudson Valley – predictions he now makes from his home in New Zealand, where he does climate predictions for the National Institute of Water & Atmospheric Research. From 8,500 miles away, Noll spends his after-work hours compiling a weekly email that has become a go-to source for school administrators in six New York counties deciding whether to delay or cancel school. In an exciting weather week, Noll might spend three to four hours each evening, to his fiancée’s chagrin, distilling data and hand-making weather graphics, writing longer form pieces, and then splicing them into bite-sized chunks for social media.

In the old days, in the lead-up to a big storm, students would be glued to Noll’s Twitter feed, feverishly refreshing. Noll’s Nostradamus-like forecasts have earned him more than 44,000 Twitter followers, and the snow day has always been his bread and butter. It was the epic Blizzard of 1996, which dropped four feet of snow and shut down schools for weeks, that sparked Noll’s own interest in meteorology. Among the merch for sale through Noll’s website are long-sleeve tee-shirts and sweatshirts with the tagline, “Promoting Snowday Magic since 2004.”

So is the magic still there? The Dec. 17 storm served as “a litmus test, I guess, for what this new normal was going to be like in terms of interest,” said Noll. From where he sits, it was something of a letdown. Commuters and school administrators were as tuned in as ever, but “there was markedly less interest from the student aspect of things. Engagements on Twitter and Facebook were down across the board. I can only attribute that to, basically, well I’m going to be home anyway on the computer. The full magic of snow days hasn’t been lost, but maybe this year that luster has been lost a little bit.”

Part of the fun in the Northeast

As the winter’s first storm built, it wasn’t only students who found themselves on tenterhooks. When the forecast increased to a foot of snow, “I did cry, or rather, my eyes welled several times as I willed that storm to come, probably as close as I come to praying,” said Caroline Martin of Warwick.

A high school chemistry teacher at a Waldorf school in the city, her oldest is a first-grader at Sanfordville Elementary. “My body began to drink the air around me as if by suction I would bring the storm nearer,” she said. “Not only had the concept of isolation permeated our inner worlds, but we hadn’t seen snow without in over a year, last winter being a flop. Plus, playing in the snow was one beloved activity that was not to be limited by Covid. To me, it was a gift from nature, not something to even be negotiated, let alone spurned.”

On Martin’s street in the Village of Warwick, the festivities surrounding the year’s first snow day were a multi-day affair, starting the evening before with the first fat flakes. Her kids sledded down a village street while she stood at the bottom, running interference in the rare case of a car sliding by. They spent the next day digging out their street with neighbors before heading to Stanley Deming Park to pack the sled runs for Christmas week. “By Christmas Eve we were ruddy and sore,” said Martin, “and filled with that breed of vitality that only snow bestows.”

The debate that flared in response to the snow day announcement surprised Vicki Vingoe, of Shohola, Pa. Her family had relocated back to the Northeast from Tennessee in part because she wanted her son, Edward, 8, to experience the magic of snow.

“I guess with the way technology is going I should have assumed,” said Vingoe, “but I was definitely surprised that more parents thought that it should just be continual school, without the kids really getting that fun break outside. You know, you lose daylight by the time you log off.”

Vingoe is a homemaker who until the pandemic worked part-time as a medical biller. “Even I get excited about the snow,” she said. “I was outside with him before I even had my coffee.” They played hide-and-seek, and when he found her, she pegged him with snowballs. Just as she remembers doing with her uncle and siblings, her son spent his snow day making an igloo with his dad, who’s in the Air Force.

Even Vingoe’s mom, who works in a school district accounting department, messaged her daughter the night before the storm to wear her pajamas inside-out and flush the toilet at midnight – just to push their chances that extra mile. “I never did that,” laughed Vingoe. “I could never get myself out of bed for that one.”

For school employees as well as kids, Vingoe sees a snow day as something to look forward to, particularly in this rough year. “It’s a sporadic day where you have nothing you need to do, she said. “And if you want to be a kid, you can be a kid. And if you want to do housework, you can get extra housework done. I get that we get vacations, but winter break and stuff like that aren’t the same as a wake-up call at 5 in the morning that school’s closed.”

“I did cry, or rather, my eyes welled several times as I willed that storm to come, probably as close as I come to praying. My body began to drink the air around me as if by suction I would bring the storm nearer. It’s part of being a kid, the excitement of that surprise snow day and having a day just to be a kid.” Caroline Martin