During the casual-chit chat that preceded the beginning of a meeting of Maryland school heads in the midst of a late-January snowstorm, everyone was discussing their weather-related decisions when one head remarked that he hoped that virtual learning had not killed snow days forever. His observation struck a chord with me for several reasons. First, I was feeling very sensitive about this topic because we at Holton had been dealing with an outcry in response to our decision to hold virtual school when all our peer schools had given their communities the day off; and second, because I love snow days and share his hope for their survival in a world of practiced online school.
Snow days obviously have multiple dimensions. Technically, we have snow days because we deem it dangerous to drive to school or because snow has made it difficult if not impossible to even get to school. We surely remember the snow piled on side streets during Snowmaggedon (2010) and Snowzilla (2016) with nary a snow plow in sight for days. There was simply no way that many families or teachers could get to school in the aftermath of those storms. Such conditions, however, stand out in the D.C. area, where most of the time we deal with storms that hover between ice and snow and rain. This meteorological indecision makes calling snow days particularly difficult and prompts much anticipation and much disappointment, especially in the last few years, when snow seems to fall to the south and north, but not on us.
We experience so much anticipation (and disappointment when they don't materialize) because snow days represent much more than simply transportation safety. There is a reason for the many superstitions—wearing your pajamas inside out or putting spoons under your pillow, for example—that promise to bring about such an event. For decades, Holton had a librarian of Polish descent who performed a traditional snow dance punctuated by preternatural screams that she swore had never failed to produce a day off. We humor such practices because we know the unadulterated joy of waking up to discover the gift of no school because of snow.
We sometimes get surprise days off for other reasons—a broken pipe, no electricity, no heat, or other weather events. We once called school because of wind—it was legitimately dangerous, but my son teased me mercilessly for the decision. None of these events, however, feels quite the same as a genuine snow day. That’s because there is something special about snow. Few things are more beautiful than a fresh snowfall, the landscape transformed into a wonderland by a sparkling white frosting, blurring objects and resculpting tree branches. It feels truly magical. And so quiet, the world muffled as though nature was asking us to stop, listen, and take in the beauty of her handiwork. Even when I lived in Connecticut where it snowed regularly, I never tired of the glory of new snow.
Dogs and children love snow, as well they should. The dogs frolic, surprised and pleased with the change in their familiar environs. Children marvel at their snow angels, practice their creativity building snowmen (for a gallery of excellent snow people created by the basketball players several weeks ago see this slideshow) and snow forts, while snowball fights showcase athleticism. And of course, there is sledding. What compares to the thrill of speeding down a hill on some kind of snow conveyance? Moreover, all ages can join the fun; even the dogs participate, chasing sledders down the slopes. When our son was younger, he and his friends would spend hours careening down Granger Hill, flying into the air over their painstakingly constructed jumps. I fortified them with hot cocoa and cookies and took numerous pictures that will undoubtedly show up in birthday and wedding photo montages in years to come. Making snowmen, sledding, snowball fights—we can only do these activities in the snow, making them and snow days all the more special. On that day in January, even the Upper School girls wanted to play in the snow!
Snow days also afford indoor activities that, although not as unique as the outdoor ones, nonetheless offer respite and satisfaction. Hot cocoa and cookies can be enjoyed just as easily inside as out, and, personally, baking is one of my favorite snow day activities—cookies, brownies, cupcakes, or bread. I have also developed a tradition of making French onion soup, a recipe that relies on attentively tending the caramelizing of onions. Falling snow closes off the world, cocooning us in our houses and encouraging us to hunker down, to enjoy the peace and quiet. We may all be tired of being at home, but for me, playing a game, reading a book, or knitting in front of a fire as snow falls outside will never lose its appeal.
All of this is to say that, just because we have all learned how to teach effectively in the virtual domain, we should not eliminate snow days altogether. I regret not giving the Holton community that day off (even though we had already expended our allotted ONE pure snow day back in December). Most of our students feel significant—sometimes crushing—pressure to perform in school. We push them and they push themselves academically and in other aspects of school life. In non-Covid times, they are heavily scheduled with little free time for spontaneous fun; now, life feels like drudgery when they are prohibited from so much of what they might normally enjoy—sports, acting in a play, singing, or hanging out with their friends.
While the weather should no longer force us to suspend school-learning for multiple days, the occasional snow day (and maybe even more than one a year) can—and should—provide a break from daily demands, especially right now. All the things we do when it snows have remained largely the same for centuries. Indeed, it’s hard to be on your phone while you speed down a hill. The snow can make us go back in time, slow down, enjoy the out-of-doors, take a restorative break, and soothe our souls with nature’s beauty. That will do our young people (and all of us adults, too) a world of good.
A slightly different version of this piece was published in the Feb. 16 issue of Well-Schooled.