In the springtime, school-age children across the United States lost out on sports, proms and graduations as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Come winter, the snow day is on track to become another beloved tradition struck down by the virus.
When students don’t have to leave home for instruction, aided by the rapid embrace of remote learning, inclement weather becomes inconsequential for school-day operations.
In one New Jersey district, however, school administrations have staked out a firm pro-snow-day stance.
“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,” the Mahwah Township Public School District said in a statement Tuesday. “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.”
Mahwah school officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday on the decision that, less than two months until winter, appears to be a national outlier.
New York City, the nation’s largest school district, has preemptively canceled snow days for the year, while districts from Maryland to Michigan have hinted that calling a snow day will be about as likely this winter as an all-school assembly.
While the Mahwah decision to hold open the possibility of a snow day may delight students, closing school is often a fraught decision for administrators. The exact number varies across the country, but each state requires its schools to have a minimum number of days and instructional hours in the school year, typically ranging from 175 to 180 days.
The New Jersey School Boards Association requires that schools in the state must be open to students 180 days for at least four hours of instruction or risk losing state funding. As in most states, New Jersey laws prohibit schools from holding makeup days on weekends, holidays or after graduation, typically leaving spring break and other recesses as the only times to recoup days of instruction lost to weather closures.
Critics of online learning who worry remote instruction is already shortchanging students see even more of an incentive to scrap snow days. Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of education and economics at Boston University, said there’s “no justifiable reason” to declare a snow day if students are learning remotely, citing the time students have already lost due to pandemic disruptions.
“Our goal should be to squeeze every available minute out of this school year for student learning (and more general care by teaching professionals),” Goodman told The Washington Post in an email. “Parents and students are already receiving substantially fewer educational services than they used to. Cutting back further for bad weather would be laughable if it weren’t so awful an idea.”
School officials in Kansas echoed Goodman’s concerns when they announced last week at least one district in Topeka was looking for ways to trim the number of potential snow days. Silver Lake Schools Superintendent Tim Hallacy told NBC affiliate KSNT on Friday that the district was scrambling to make up ground lost during the spring semester when schools abruptly closed.
“We need to make that up, and by reducing snow days and disruptions to the teaching-learning process, that’ll help us do that,” Hallacy said.
Online learning has fully replaced in-person instruction in one-fifth of the country’s largest school districts, while at least seven states and hundreds of individual districts have embraced a hybrid of in-person and online learning.
The logistical groundwork for laptops, tablets and Zoom classrooms having been laid in the spring has nudged a growing number of schools – whether the brick-and-mortar buildings are open or not – toward swapping snow days for “virtual learning days” to minimize further disruptions to what has already been a tumultuous year for young students.
Still, others argue that preserving snow days is the least schools can do to keep at least one of the dwindling number of school-year rituals intact. After the Denver Public School District announced in September that virtual learning could put snow days on the chopping block, local resident Michael Vair reflected on his own childhood of enjoying an unscheduled day off and lamented that his sixth-grader could be denied the experience.
“It’s sad to think of them not having that glimmer of hope that when the clouds start building up they might not have to go to school,” Vair told the Denver Post. “There’s something to be said about having spontaneous free time.”