But could distance learning put a crushing end to this cherished tradition? Not entirely and not yet. But in some jurisdictions, school officials are mulling and implementing plans to start scaling them back.
During the coronavirus pandemic, platforms such as Zoom, Blackboard and Microsoft Teams have demonstrated that schools are able to reach students synchronously — and at least somewhat reliably — even when they are outside the classroom.
Education Week, a news organization covering K-12 education, surveyed principals and district leaders nationally and found that 39 percent have converted snow days to remote learning days and that 32 percent are considering it.
The Washington region is among those where changes to snow-day policies are afoot.
Although Fairfax County has yet to finalize its policy for this winter, it may employ distance learning to cut back on the amount of school missed if bad weather forces it to close for more than two days.
“[O]ur plan may be to pivot to virtual learning for all students on day three and beyond,” John Torre, the county’s executive director of communications, wrote in an email.
Superintendent Francisco Durán of Arlington County Public Schools said that shifting classes online for snow days was a “possibility” but that he doesn’t expect it to happen often.
“These types of plans are usually for places that receive a lot of snow that impacts instruction,” Durán said.
Discussions about continuing instruction online during bad-weather days are underway in Baltimore County, said Steve Hoffman, who has taught 10th-grade government at Carver Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore since 2006. “It is very possible, and I probably would say likely,” he said.
Hoffman, who counts himself a fan of snowstorms, does not like the idea.
“I am sure I am biased by the fact that snow days were a magical part of my childhood, but in my opinion, the benefits of a few days of virtual instruction do not make it worth taking away that experience from future generations of children,” he said.
Hoffman’s views are shared by Mahwah Township Public Schools in New Jersey, whose October statement in defense of snow days and its plan to uphold them went viral.
“Snow days are chances for on-site learners and virtual learners to just be kids by playing in the snow, baking cookies, reading books and watching a good movie,” the school district wrote. “These are times for memory-making, and we believe these types of opportunities should remain intact.”
Indeed, some see the prospect of a snow day and the joy of its realization as a rite of childhood. In Washington, where winter storm forecasts are fickle, snow days are seldom guaranteed, instead being subject to the whims of Mother Nature and schools superintendents, making them especially sought after. They’re often also a source of great suspense.
Those eagerly anticipating a snow day are often taken on a dramatic ride as they track shifting weather predictions and await the final outcome.
The moment of truth may come when peering out the window the morning after a predicted snowfall. The sight of bare ground can be a devastating blow to those with their snowsuits laid out, whereas a fresh blanket of white is cause for celebration. That assumes, of course, that the decision-makers make the call to close. In past years, some school systems have faced sharp criticism for staying open in conditions deemed unsafe or mocked for closing for a mere dusting of snow.
Distance learning may eventually sap snow-day intrigue and vanquish the elation of a fun-filled day off, but, in some districts, they’re not going anywhere yet.
Loudoun County schools recently told families that the system will continue observing snow days in 2020. In an email to families, Assistant Schools Superintendent Kevin Lewis wrote that several factors influenced the decision, including how snow affects the school district’s ability to provide meals, the potential disruption to public utilities, and hazardous road conditions making it difficult for some teachers to reach their classrooms to deliver instruction to students who are at home.
Bridget Loft, Arlington County’s assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, noted that the variable nature of the Washington region’s winter weather would pose an additional challenge in ramping up distance learning.
“Snow days are often surprise events for which teachers may not be able to prepare in advance,” Loft said. “If teachers have to care for their own children whose schools may have closed, as well, they will not be able to fully focus on delivering synchronous instruction.”
During the pandemic, when schools already are set up for distance learning, the case for observing snow days may be a losing argument, especially at schools where teachers and students alike already are working remotely.
Those who advocate for distance learning as replacement for snow days, regardless of circumstances, say it’s a preferred option to extending school into the summer, when some schools lack air conditioning and enthusiasm for learning may wane, Education Week reported.
For Hoffman, distance learning — whether due to a pandemic or inclement weather — will never be a substitute for in-person learning.
“So much of a good lesson revolves around student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions that cannot be simulated online,” he said. “You lack the context clues, body language and subtle human interactions that are an important part of the experience.”