More than a foot of snow fell on New York yesterday. In any other year, this would have meant a snow day. Not this year.
Yes, it may seem trivial, but to our kids it is not.
In Being Mortal, Atul Gawande notes that people need different spaces for work, play, and sleep, and that when all these occur in the same space, you go nuts. Gawande was writing about nursing homes, but reading this in the current pandemic-addled winter, I found myself thinking about our school setup. My son’s bed is 3 feet from the desk where he does schoolwork, where he does his homework, where he plays video games and watches screens. It is enough to make you go nuts.
Ostensibly, we close schools amidst snowfall because of the danger and delay of travel. Perhaps School Chancellor Carranza felt it was an easy decision: No travel, no closure.
But anyone who lives in the real world knows that snow days, for the kids, are not the inefficient issue of travel but the magical gift of a day to play in a landscape transformed.
Parents may hate those snow days: Having to rearrange child care for a last-minute school closure. But let’s be honest: Right now, parents are already hating the challenge of work and child care under the same roof. A snow day is, if anything, less of an additional burden in pandemic-addled New York than it was in pandemic-free New York.
And yet, 18 inches of snow adorn our parks and streets, and the kids are kept in front of the screens to learn.
Beyond the no travel, no danger theory, I can come up with only three other arguments against a snow day:
1. Our kids are already falling behind this year, so let’s make sure we don’t sacrifice a moment of learning, learning, learning.
More sheer time in front of screens does not equate to more learning, and can in fact spoil a love of learning. More importantly, if I have a kid who does not learn to love the peace and beauty of fresh snow on city trees, then I have failed that kid. Snow days are the lesson of serendipity, of nature, of fun without screens. I fear this is one horrid unintended consequence of our pandemic year: In the world of online everything, each interaction is planned and logged and the same computer that delivers learning delivers so so much more. A snow day cannot call into a zoom meeting, and that is a wonderful lesson to learn. Restoring balance between learning and play, life and work, is a responsibility that we must not pass up.
2. We’ve got to stay safe, so don’t set up the day for kids to play and infect each other.
I have tried to be thoughtful about the health risks of a snow day. As far as I can tell, a snow day seemed like a great opportunity for parents to do exactly the opposite of put kids at risk: To give kids the chance either to stay home (exactly what they were doing anyway) or to go out, masks on, bundled against the wind, to have a chance to play in the outdoors distanced from others but close to nature — a rare opportunity for the safety of outdoor play in the city in winter. A rare opportunity missed.
3. They can all play in the snow when the school day is done.
This is the bah, humbug argument, and I have chosen to accept it. In fact, the moment the school day was done, my son and I pulled on our boots and gloves and trekked out, plastic sled in hand, to the hill in Fort Tryon Park. When we got there, there was a crowd of more than 100 other kids and adults, over 90% masked. We all kept our distance, but we had our fun. And even if we were staying away from each other, it was a different kind of fun than sledding alone or connecting online. It was the serendipitous community that comes from all being in the same place for the same purpose.
So we did all play in the snow when the school day was done. And it was truly a grand feeling, in this winter of isolation, to see all those people doing the same.
Educators and education leaders out there, I beseech you to learn this lesson. Next time: Give the kids a break for the wonder of a snow day.