Buzz Kill Alert: The Case Against Snow Days

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Certain parts of the country have been blasted with snow this winter. It doesn't look likely to end anytime soon, as today's Midwest blizzard makes its way eastward. This winter's wild weather has caused power outages, stopped traffic on major highways, and incapacitated commuter trains. But despite such major inconveniences, these blizzards are responsible for the one thing everyone loves, regardless of age. That's right: SNOW DAYS!

Unfortunately, there are some people out there who hate to have fun. Freakonomics blogger Ian Ayres is one of them. In the midst of reminiscing on the olden days of waiting to hear if school is canceled over the radio, Ayres's daughter introduces him to a Snow Day Prediction Widget. Ayres marvels at the genius of the high school junior who invented the application and then concludes that most snow days are a bad idea. But how could that be? Well, he explains:

I think that most children are exposed to more miles of driving on a snow day than they would be if they went to school...There is something close to an iron law that the more passenger miles driven, the more injuries and deaths.  And when kids aren’t driving around, they are engaging in more dangerous outdoor activities.
Discretionary snow days make families scramble for child care. I'd bet this disproportionately hurts working families that are already hustling to make ends meet. And unplanned child care is probabilistically higher risk. In sharp contrast to my happy childhood memories of snow days, I'd predict that discretionary snow days expose some kids to risk of abuse, neglect and/or negligent care when they are dumped last-minute at their uncle Ned's. (And don't forget the miles driven on snowy roads to get them there.)

So when is it acceptable for schools to close and allow today's youth a chance at a childhood as great as Ayres'? If Dunkin' Donuts is closed, only then should anything else be closed, Ayres' writes. "The fast-food industry test for snow days seems a lot closer to my guess of what would maximize public health and safety than the school board test," he proposes. "And harmonizing the two tests would provide the extra benefit that many working families wouldn't need to scramble for childcare because the parents wouldn't have to work when the kids don't have school."

Or, he offers:

The Dunkin’ Donuts test also provides a clue to what it might mean for a school to be open when it snows.  Sometimes a store will be open but with reduced staff and services.  The same idea could be used for schools.  It is not essential that all teachers get to school on time or that normal classes be held.  Instead, we might split the difference by still announcing snow days for light snow, but giving families the option of dropping their kids off at a school which will provide a safe environment even if it can’t muster the personnel to fulfill its usual education mission.  Snow day school could even be re-imagined as a day of creativity and fun.

Snow day school doesn't sound as fun as a snow day without school, but, okay. Ayres is actually not alone in his crusade against unnecessary days off. At America Magazine, Tom Beaudoin offers a similar argument against the snow day. "Of course many working parents have no 'sick days,' or their employers do not call snow days with the same caution as some school districts, daring many parents to choose between staying home with their children on snow days, or arranging and paying for child care on the fly," he writes. Since most of today's families have two working parents, Beaudoin questions what snow days do for a family's well-being. "Here's my off-the-cuff idea: shouldn't snow days be an occasion or at least an invitation for parents (or other in-home caregivers) to really enjoy an unscheduled day with their children? Should our social and employment policies reflect the importance of parents or caregivers being able to "not work" on school snow days?"

So there you have it. Two convincing, practical arguments against snow days. Don't feel bad if you're still crossing your fingers that school/work will be canceled tomorrow.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.