Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus pandemic is not over
Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
Maryland residents pack a sledding hill in 2015. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Since the coronavirus pandemic upended her school district in early March, a West Virginia superintendent has received hundreds of calls from students, parents and staff members mourning what they can no longer have: prom, homecoming, a proper graduation, full classrooms.

As Bondy Shay Gibson put it, “all of those things that make school wonderful, all of these rites of passage.”

So, with the first blanket of snow expected to cover her district on Wednesday, the Jefferson County Schools superintendent decided her nearly 9,000 students shouldn’t miss out on one more experience. Despite many students’ virtual class schedule, she canceled all classes in an emotional letter pleading with families to enjoy the experience.

“It has been a year of seemingly endless loss and the stress of trying to make up for that loss,” Gibson wrote on Tuesday. “For just a moment, we can all let go of the worry of making up for the many things we missed by making sure this is one thing our kids won’t lose this year.”

Gibson’s announcement tapped a nerve for many, going viral on social media, bringing some to tears and prompting others to cancel their original plans to take advantage of the snow day. One superintendent in Pennsylvania was so moved she also gave her students and staff part of the day off.

Gibson said she has been overwhelmed by the response, but she understands why her order connected.

“People are hungry for some joy. They want to see a light at the end of this tunnel,” Gibson told The Washington Post. “Some of that heaviness was suspended for just a day.”

Snow days, for many students, have been yet another casualty of the pandemic as districts try to make up for days missed earlier this year when schools struggled to adapt to online learning. In New York City, which saw up to six inches of snow on Wednesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) declined to cancel classes, announcing the nation’s largest school district would have a “FULL REMOTE learning day.”

Others had already vowed to continue the ritual amid the pandemic. In October, one New Jersey school district announced it would still allow children to take advantage of snow days, noting it was a chance for students “to just be kids by playing in the snow, baking cookies, reading books and watching a good movie.”

Distance learning may put snow days on thin ice

Gibson, who has been in charge of the district in Charles Town, W. Va., for six years, is used to making tough decisions about whether to heed weather warnings. But in this case, she said, it was an easy call.

“This was one thing that we could give them,” Gibson, 51, told The Post. “When you lose so much, it makes the things you have so much more precious.”

So on Monday, when forecasts made it clear her district would be hit with severe winter weather, Gibson drafted the letter in less than 30 minutes. The announcement encouraged students and their parents to take full advantage.

“Please, enjoy a day of sledding and hot chocolate and cozy fires,” Gibson wrote. “Take pictures of your kids in snow hats they will outgrow by next year and read books that you have wanted to lose yourself in, but haven’t had the time.”

She ended by noting “we will return to the serious and urgent business of growing up on Thursday, but for tomorrow … go build a snowman.”

Soon after she sent the letter on Tuesday, community members and complete strangers began commenting on the district’s social media page, praising the “genuine and heartfelt” letter.

“I just read this and cried. How lovely and thoughtful,” one person posted. “Absolutely 100 % the sweetest and most unexpected gift,” a user commented.

New Jersey school district pledges to protect at least one ritual from pandemic upheaval: The snow day

On Wednesday, as snow arrived in West Virginia, her students had only one assignment. “The snow is falling!!! Let us know how you are unwinding and enjoying the snow day. Pictures by the fire? Sledding? A snowman? Share your photos here and have a relaxing day!” the school posted.

Gibson took advantage of the snow day herself. She baked chocolate chip muffins and played in the eight inches of snow with her 14-year-old son and their two dogs, she said.

That day, Gibson received dozens of photos, videos and texts. One parent sent her a picture of a student with his early Christmas present: a puppy who accompanied the student playing in the snow. Another family said her letter had brought memories of sledding with their daughter, who is now a college student, and motivated them to get out their sleds.

She received no pushback from parents or staff, said Gibson, who noted that touching so many people’s lives through the letter was the “absolute highlight” of her career.

“It felt good to do something that helps people feel connected,” she said. “People were anticipating losing one more good thing and when they didn’t, it sparked joy.”

Gibson said she is in no position to judge school leaders who have opted to do away with snow days this year. Children do need to make up the time lost during the beginning of the pandemic, she said. But she said they also need to make up for the lost emotional and social connections.

“They need grace a lot more than they need grades,” she said.