Categories: News

What kids lose without snow days

What ever happened to a good old-fashioned snow day? | Getty Images/fStop

Virtual learning means missing out on a different kind of education.

We had many superstitions when I was a kid. Wear your pajamas inside out. Or wear your underwear on the outside of your PJs. Gargle a bit of saltwater right before bed. When you put your shoes away, make sure they’re backward; left shoe on the right-hand side, right on the left.

Our teachers would remind us of these tricks during the school day before a potential snowfall. That night, we would all do our part, hoping and praying that we’d awaken to a sheet of fresh snow, deep enough to render our schools closed for the day.

On those mornings, we’d wake up earlier than usual to stare at the local news channel, filled with anticipation as the names of all the local school districts drifted across the screen, anxious to see our own listed among the lucky ones.

If a snow day was announced, it was pure elation as we rushed to get our winter bibs and boots on to go out and play in the fresh snow, joining our friends and neighbors for sledding or snowballing or snowman building. We’d return home after a few hours for hot chocolate and soup before putting on dry clothes and heading back out again.

Growing up on the Jersey Shore, we rarely had to endure very snowy winters. But each year, we could count on at least one or two snow days minimum. Sometimes, like the great blizzard of ’96 — which, at one point, rendered the whole of the New Jersey Turnpike closed — we’d get entire stretches of days off to play in our sudden winter wonderland.

Of course, back then we didn’t have access to the internet like we do now. We couldn’t be in class from the comfort of home.

With the proliferation of virtual learning, do kids even get to enjoy the magic of an unexpected snow day anymore? Are true snow days an endangered species?

Earlier this month, nearly 1 million students in New York City’s public school system learned that their schools would remain open, despite the threat of a predicted half-foot of snowfall (in the end, estimates ended up being a bit high, with John F. Kennedy International Airport reporting just over 4 inches of accumulation). Classes would be held virtually, they were told — even though there was a network outage that prevented smooth proceedings. There was plenty of pushback, even including some reports of teachers telling parents to ignore the edict from Mayor Eric Adams.

But the point remained: Access to virtual learning was robbing kids of one of the premier highlights of youth (at least in those geographical sweet spots like New Jersey, where snow falls sometimes in the winter).

Adams’s comments that New York City had to “minimize how many days our children are just sitting at home making snowmen,” completely disregarded the social needs of a generation of overworked and overstressed children.

Because there’s nothing wrong with a day or two spent sitting at home, making snowmen. At least not according to Melanie Killen, a professor of human development and quantitative methodology at the University of Maryland.

“Snow days need to be sledding days,” she said. Snow days offer “a different kind of learning … an important kind of learning.”

I spoke with Killen a few days after those inches of snow blanketed New York City, wondering what effect the growing loss of snow days has on school-aged children. I suggested snow days offer students something of a brain break from the regular grind of school-based learning. Killen was quick to correct me.

“I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ‘brain break,’” Killen said. “Kids are out there using their brains in different ways on snow days. It’s a break from the traditional teacher-children dissemination, which kids need.”

Killen likened the typical snow day of the past to something like an extended recess, highlighting how during that less structured playtime, kids continue to learn. She added that almost everything about playing in the snow offers some sort of quantifiable lesson about the world.

Killen described how throwing snowballs was like a lesson in physics, how sledding involved implicit mathematics, and how even the very snow itself provided children with a sense of material understanding. After all, anyone who’s ever played in the stuff knows exactly what kind of snow makes the best snowballs.

These more free-form social settings also allow children to learn how to interact with other people in the world, how to infer intentions and expectations, and how to learn about fairness, morality, and justice. This is known as social cognition, which, according to the American Psychological Association, is the way “people perceive, think about, interpret, categorize, and judge their own social behaviors and those of others.”

According to Killen, free-form interactions, like those on a snow day, are prime real estate for the development of social cognition in children.

Going virtual on snowy days “undermines the power of peer interactions, which are fundamental for contributing to change and development,” Killen said.

To contest Adams’s point: When children are making snowmen, they are absolutely learning.

Where I live now in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Andy Jenks is the name people anticipate hearing on a snowy weekday morning. As the chief communications officer for Chapel Hill/Carrboro City Schools, Jenks is the guy on the prerecorded voice message telling us whether or not our schools are closed for the day when snow falls or ice accumulates. Jenks has become such a legend among the local high school kids that homemade signs sporting Jenks’s face were held high above the student section at the recent Chapel Hill/East Chapel Hill rivalry basketball game.

But while Jenks may get all the praise (or disdain, depending on the nature of the voicemail), the decision on whether or not to close schools is not his. Rather, it’s a decision made by the school system’s superintendent after being informed by what Jenks calls the system’s “operations team.” After observing weather reports and taking a look out the window on a snowy morning, that team makes a suggestion to the superintendent, who then has the final call as to whether or not schools will be closed for that day. Some version of this is standard protocol for most school districts in America.

“Generally speaking, it comes down to safety,” Jenks said. “If we believe we can safely transport kids to school and if our staff can safely transport themselves to school … then we can have school. But if things call safety into question — an accumulation of snow or ice, wind, or other factors — at that point … [we might] close school altogether.”

Jenks also points to local and regional infrastructure as a pivotal factor in the decisions to keep schools open or closed. And while everyone loves to dunk on how the South handles snow, it’s important to remember that places like ours simply aren’t armed with fleets of plows and salt trucks. It can sometimes take days to clear every road in town.

Considering as much, if a small portion of the student body lives on roads that can’t be plowed, the whole of the student body gets a snow day.

“No one is going to get left behind on account of the weather,” Jenks said.

There’s also the question of what’s become known as the digital divide: the socioeconomic gap between those who have reliable access to computers and the internet and those who don’t. For a relatively wealthy school district like Chapel Hill/Carrboro, where each middle and high school student gets a school-issued laptop, it’s less of an issue. Some studies have estimated that as many as 12 million kids across America lack sufficient access to reliable internet access. Some school districts, like Chapel Hill/Carrboro, have taken to sending some students home with wifi hotspots when extended closures are forecast. One district in Wisconsin has even experimented with using drones to deliver connectivity.

In many ways, it’s simply easier for the district to cancel school on a snowy day.

Sadly, the students of Chapel Hill/Carrboro City Schools haven’t heard Andy Jenks’s prerecorded voice telling them they have a sudden day off due to snow in some time. It’s been 764 days at the time of this writing. It’s a number Jenks hopes will soon reset to zero.

“All of us used to be kids and we do appreciate the enjoyment of a good old-fashioned snow day on a fresh winter morning,” he said. “We still believe that kids should have that experience.”

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