Snow Days May Never Be the Same

The availability of virtual learning means schools don’t necessarily need to shut down for the weather. But the loss of snow days is the loss of a source of joy for kids.

child works remotely on a snow day
Adam Maida / Getty / The Atlantic

Snow days are uniquely beloved by kids in wintry climates. After a night of hoping, children earn a blissful surprise: a morning spent sleeping in and a day of playing outside. As Cindy Burau, a fourth-grade teacher in Lake Tahoe, California, put it: Snow days are “like gifts from the heavens that we all need: a sigh, a moment.” The pandemic has threatened this tradition. For students who attend school remotely every day, bad weather no longer affects their ability to attend class. And schools that have returned to in-person teaching or hybrid models likely still have remote-learning setups that they can turn to. With virtual school available as an alternative to canceling class, some schools have seen fit to put an end to the snow day as generations of children have known it.

On the one hand, students are falling months behind after losing classroom time because of COVID-19. (This is more likely to be the case for students of color and students living in low-income communities.) Some educators argue that students can’t afford to miss more school this year—even when it snows. On the other hand, kids love snow days, and many parents welcome even a short break from the daily grind of helping with Zoom classes. The products of a practical need to keep students at home during dangerous travel conditions, snow days’ primary purpose has become bringing children joy. The pandemic has taken so much away from kids, snow-day advocates say. Do we have to take this away too?

But snow days were endangered even before COVID-19 hit. Over the past five years or so, some districts in Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, and other states have opted for students to work remotely when the weather has made travel dangerous. The coronavirus has accelerated this trend. Because of the pandemic, about 40 percent of school districts have replaced traditional snow days with remote-learning days, while only 20 percent have preserved the days off, according to a November survey from Education Week. (The remainder of those surveyed were either undecided or located in climates where school isn’t likely to be canceled for weather.)

Whether these schools are making a temporary decision for the duration of the pandemic or a more permanent change is still unclear. In the coming years, although climate change will likely affect U.S. snowfall patterns, schools in many regions will still need to deal with winter weather. And during true emergencies, such as the recent winter storm and resulting infrastructure disaster in Texas, even remote school will have to be canceled. But in less extreme cases, adjustments made for the pandemic have given schools more choices.

Cheryl Logan, the superintendent of Omaha Public Schools, had been quietly considering the possibility of holding classes remotely during snow days for several years. The pandemic sped up her plans: Her teachers grew accustomed to teaching virtually, and the school district provided her students with iPads that have mobile connections. Suddenly she had solutions for all the logistical hurdles that had held her back. In November, Logan announced that traditional snow days are gone forever in her district. Still, she was quick to correct us when we asked about the decision to permanently cancel them: “We don’t like to use the word cancel. We like to use repurpose.” She has chosen a hybrid model, in which students will sign on for a few hours in the morning and take the afternoon off. She’s mindful of children’s need to play and the nostalgia factor associated with snow days. “It makes complete sense that folks are yearning for anything that feels more like what we have been accustomed to,” she told us. But as an educator, she wants to ensure that inclement weather doesn’t lead to students falling too far behind in school.

For Jen Homann, a software engineer and parent to a third grader in Omaha, the decision has been slightly disappointing. Although her son is mostly back to in-person school, he requires help on remote snow days—because her husband has to go into the office, and she works from home, that burden falls largely on her. In districts such as hers that permanently replace snow days with online learning, parents will have to not only juggle their jobs and the logistics of child care when the weather keeps kids home, but also deal with remote school even after the pandemic ends.

This would add an extra burden to days that were already logistically complicated for many working parents. For example, Jenn Ragan, a mom in Lake Tahoe, owns a snow-removal business, so she’s always been busiest when it snows. “There’s more that goes into a snow day than just kids playing. Teachers, parents, everyone—they’re shoveling or blowing their driveways,” she told us.

But not all families are sad to lose traditional snow days. Melissa Siig, a mom of three kids in Lake Tahoe, told us that, during the pandemic, a snow day is “not as exciting and special as it used to be. It was almost like Christmas.” Many students have now spent almost a full year mostly stuck inside, and a snow day—once an excuse to stay home and relax—is not very different from a typical pandemic day. Siig’s daughter, Kaya, 14, said that her school sometimes adds days to the end of the year to compensate for snow days, so doing away with them could mean an earlier summer vacation.

Their district, which has partially returned to the classroom in a hybrid model, is responding to bad weather with both distance-learning days and traditional snow days, depending on how bad that weather is. During a big storm in January, Carmen Diaz Ghysels, the superintendent of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, called three snow days: the first two as distance learning, and the last a traditional one to accommodate teachers who had lost internet access. Ghysels is unsure whether the district will continue to have remote-learning “snow days” post-pandemic, since the state’s board of education has not announced whether distance learning is approved for the next school year. She’s also aware that many community members feel strongly about preserving the days off, and wants to hear from them before making a decision.

Other superintendents, such as Bondy Shay Gibson of Jefferson County Schools in West Virginia, are also attuned to their community’s feelings toward snow days. In December, Gibson canceled classes so that students could enjoy the first snow of the school year and take a break. In the future, however, Gibson told us, students may be asked to attend classes remotely on snowy days. “You have to have some balance,” she said. “We have huge expectations of kids these days, and every once in a while, you’ve just got to put grace before grades and let them enjoy being a kid, because it goes by pretty fast.”

For many, including Gibson, saving a beloved tradition has turned out to be good press. On social media, thousands of people shared the letter Gibson wrote announcing the December day off, which declared that in a difficult year, “this is one thing our kids won’t lose.” A superintendent in Indiana jokingly assigned students snowball fights as homework for their day off. The Mahwah school district in New Jersey announced that it would keep snow days to “maintain the hope of children.” Campbell’s Soup made the effort corporate with a #SavetheSnowDay campaign. The company, which has partnered with Mahwah, aims to “preserve and protect our most magical of winter birthrights,” and, of course, peddle canned goods at the same time.

Before its campaign to save snow days, Mahwah had seriously considered canceling them, according to Lisa Rizzo, the district’s director of special services. But ultimately, those in favor of preserving them won out. Since then, the fervor for snow days (powered by social-media support) has grown, and Mahwah administrators have churned out impassioned pro–snow day videos and emails. “We will find a way to get to the math, get to the reading,” Dennis Fare, the assistant superintendent told us. Rizzo added, “Children have lost so many rites of passage. The first-day-of-school photograph at the bus stop was gone. Birthday parties are reduced to signs on your front lawn and friends driving by, honking horns. This is one place where we can maintain the integrity of childhood.”

Snow days are, of course, only a couple of days a year. But they represent so much more. Anticipating snow days is part of the fun, as children try to summon them with superstitions such as flushing ice cubes down the toilet, wearing their pajamas inside out, and sleeping with spoons under their pillows. They celebrate them by spending time outside, away from screens. Burau, the fourth-grade teacher, told us that snow days bring the whole community together: Kids go sledding, high schoolers dig cars out for extra cash, and parents take time to play in the snow too. If nothing else, snow days offer children a temporary break from the modern school culture of constant homework. During a year of loss, saving the snow day has come to represent protecting children from the harms of the pandemic—Zoom fatigue, grief, and monotony—and preserving moments of joy.