The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Snow days persist even in an era of virtual learning

Nikko Ilao, 9, pauses before going down a homemade ramp for sledding in Olney, Md., on Jan. 3. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Anita Deshpande in a photo caption. The caption has been corrected.

Reports of the demise of snow days have proved an exaggeration.

When a snowstorm blanketed the D.C. area Monday, leaving cars and telephone cables and coronavirus testing sites tucked beneath tight coats of white, almost every public school system in the Washington region made the same call: No class today. None at all. Not even — despite the predictions from educators and experts and newspapers, including this one — the online kind.

As Americans slog and shrug into year three of this global nightmare, amid the onslaught of the omicron variant and facing a battery of boosters, it was the least the adults could do, said Frank Bellavia, spokesman for Arlington Public Schools.

“We wanted students to have some sense of normalcy,” he said, “which is why the decision to have snow days.”

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Class was canceled — in the old-fashioned, pre-Internet sense of the term — in Arlington and in Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, Loudoun County Public Schools and Prince William County Public Schools. Likewise in D.C. Public Schools. And in Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools and Prince George’s County Public Schools, the two largest districts in the state.

One of the only exceptions was Alexandria City Public Schools, which offered virtual lessons for its roughly 16,000 students. Gerald Mann Jr., Alexandria’s executive director of instructional support, noted that the district taught “no new content.” He added that “our goal is to support continuity of learning.”

But everywhere else, school officials were busy declaring allegiance to pre-pandemic idols: to hot chocolate and snowball-frozen fingertips. To igloos and the universal tragedy of the moment when ice, somehow, slides inside your woolen sock. To sledding down hills and trudging back up again all while, please pretty please, inching around the yellow snow.

For 9-year-old Lucy Kaufholz and 10-year-old Eve Kaufholz, sisters who moved to Virginia from Florida this summer, Monday meant enchantment — and an early start.

Lucy woke up before the sun did, because “my brain gets up early on exciting days.” She got up at 5:54 a.m. on Christmas Day, for example. Monday saw her rise exactly three minutes later, at 5:57 a.m.

It wasn’t super snowy yet. Still, Lucy, Eve and their parents — Brianne Kaufholz, 40, and Eddie Kaufholz, 41 — bounded outside for a walk, where they discovered they had the entire neighborhood to themselves.

Over the course of the day, most of which they spent outdoors, the family also discovered they are missing certain key pieces of gear for life in a state where it snows. Lucy needs thick socks, Brianne needs waterproof gloves, and pretty much everybody needs waterproof jackets.

Lucy still cannot believe how much it snowed. At one point, she stuck her ruler into a drift in the front yard — and the snow swallowed it whole.

Brianne Kaufholz said she is glad Arlington called a traditional snow day.

“They’re young enough, they’re going to learn what they need to learn,” Brianne Kaufholz said. “Them experiencing the world on a snow day? That’s more important.”

Several D.C.-area school systems will close again Tuesday after the snowstorm

School officials offered similar explanations.

Bellavia of Arlington noted that his district has built six snow days into its academic calendar this year. Julie Moult, a spokeswoman for the Fairfax school system, said her district has allotted five snow days this year.

“FCPS believes that traditional snow days provide a memorable and much-loved childhood experience for our students,” Moult said.

In Loudoun, said spokesman Wayde Byard, district officials have no plans to offer virtual learning on snow days. That would not be feasible, Byard said, because Internet service can be patchy in the sprawling county, large portions of which remain rural.

“Not all students would be able to access the virtual lessons,” he said. “The same technical limitations [mean] many teachers have to go to school to offer their lessons virtually. This would be a safety risk in inclement weather.”

D.C. Public Schools officials on Monday pointed to previous guidance the school system issued on Dec. 10. The district is returning to pre-pandemic-style snow days, with no plan for virtual instruction as an alternative when physical classrooms close.

In Maryland’s Montgomery County, officials decided against virtual learning because the district’s policy is to give families and staff 24 hours’ notice of that type of change, said district spokesman Christopher Cram. If a weather closure continues for a longer period, remote learning would be on the table, he said.

“Students participating in learning is important,” he wrote in an email. “The best choice is dependent on the facts driving an operational decision.”

By Monday evening almost a dozen school districts in the D.C. region — many in the southeastern areas — had canceled school for another day because of the snowstorm. That included the Alexandria school system, which was planning a second day of virtual learning Tuesday.

Perhaps the most surprising declaration Monday came from Prince George’s County, where children are learning remotely. The district reverted to virtual schooling in mid-December because of rising coronavirus cases.

A spokeswoman for the district said three snow days had been built into this year’s school calendar — and officials decided to use one of them Monday.

She gave no reason why a snow day was necessary if children were already attending school online.

Then again, maybe no reason was needed.