The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Just let the kids sled

Snowed-in school buses in Bethesda, Md., in 2016. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

It’s August, and I’m dreaming of snow.

Not because I want summer to end — that will happen soon enough — but because of a depressing new policy recently adopted by a South Carolina school district.

Anderson County’s School District 5, southwest of Greenville near the Georgia border, announced last week that it had been chosen to “pilot the first eLearning program in the state of South Carolina.” The plan is to eliminate makeup days caused by bad weather. This year, students won’t get a day off when snow or ice hits. Instead, teachers will send assignments to students’ school-provided tablet computers, which the kids will be required to complete. “Inclement weather days will be eLearning days and will not be made up,” the district calendar states. Snow days are dead.

Just imagine: A child wakes up to a neighborhood gloriously silent. Overnight, the world has been transformed by a thick blanket of snow. Should she reach for coat and gloves, to relish the gift of the day?

Nope. Grab your laptop, kid — school’s still in session and it’s time to log on.

Follow Christine Emba's opinionsFollow

I’m overstating it, you may think. Does it even snow in South Carolina? But other school districts — ones blessed more often with snowy days — have either put similar policies in place or are considering them. And the more one prods at the logic behind these decisions, the more quickly a deplorable reasoning rises to the surface.

A quick caveat: School is good. Education is important, and the hard work of teachers should not go to waste. Too many weather-induced absences can be disruptive to learning, and makeup days tacked onto the end of the school year don’t always compensate for that effect.

But resource-wise, this initiative seems a bit back-to-front. “We’ve invested $11 million in Chromebooks in the last five years, and this enables us to make use of it,” District 5 Superintendent Tom Wilson said. Administrators seem to want to make the case for the expensive take-home technology they have already bought, even though many teachers would tell you that the growing number of screens at home and in the classroom has done more harm than good.  

Philosophically, the reasoning seems even worse. “Technology has changed every profession, and we have the technology in place to keep kids working during the snow days and eliminate the makeup days,” Wilson said. Yes, every profession, including the corporate jungle of . . . primary school. Put those kids to work!

Let’s be honest: Adult life is rote enough already, becoming more so every day. We the employed are constantly lamenting how there is no longer such a thing as time off. Vacation days have turned into checking-email-from-our-phone days; we answer messages first thing in the morning and last thing at night; being “out of office” is a thing of the past.

This pernicious connectedness has trickled down to our children, too, leading more to distress than any sort of increased “productivity.” Free and unstructured time is understood to be critical to creativity, emotional regulation and positive mental health — but somewhere along the way we decided those weren’t all that important. Today millennials, perhaps the first generation fully subjected to the tyranny of digital networks and over-organization, have floated to adulthood on a wave of anxiety disorders and depression.

Our obsession with productivity is crowding out serendipity. We’ve lost our understanding of leisure. And instead of fostering it where they still can, apparently some school administrators would like to make sure it is vanquished for good — one snow day at a time.

Certainly there are life lessons that “eLearning” can promote: a facility for time management, an understanding of responsibility, reinforcement of self-regulation. But that’s what normal homework is for. Yes, our educational system is meant to foster growth, but there is something to be said for allowing childhood to proceed at its own pace. Not every empty moment needs to have a scheduled activity crammed into it.

As grown-ups, we remember our snow days fondly — the particular tingle of anticipation the night before, the solidarity with our fellow classmates as the cancellations pile up. There is a sweet relief in the unexpected holiday, a rare sense of freedom that dawns as the snowflakes fall. There are memories that can only be made on charmed days such as these — the sleeping in, the snowball fights, the huddling under a blanket and forgetting that the world exists.

Childhood passes too quickly as it is, and the young will be inculcated into our workaday gloom soon enough. So please, leave the snow days alone. For just a little while, let them sled in peace.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Children belong in school. You’d think the education secretary would know that.

Diane Ravitch: Charter schools damage public education

Helaine Olen: Betsy DeVos knows little about public education. And she doesn’t want to learn.

Arne Duncan: People are saying education reform hasn’t worked. Don’t believe them.

Eight Heads of Washington-Area Private Schools: Our schools will get rid of AP courses. Here’s why.