On winter nights when we were little, my brother and I would often to go to bed wearing our pajamas inside out and backwards. This was the universally recognized method for conjuring a snow day. When we awoke in the predawn darkness, we went downstairs and tuned the television to the local news station. We ignored the news reports; our eyes were glued to the scrolling strip at the bottom of the screen that was listing alphabetically the towns that had cancelled school for the day. We held our breaths as the list approached the ‘E’s.’ Easton had a reputation for being hardcore. The superintendent would often keep the doors open even when surrounding communities shut down. We respected and hated her for this. If the E’s passed by without ‘Easton,’ we were crushed; if ‘Easton’ appeared on the scroll, we rejoiced. Delayed starts were worse than a normal opening because they only prolonged the sadness. A single snow day was worth any number of makeup days in June. Life was that simple.

When Covid-19 reared its ugly head at the beginning of 2020, schools were able to pivot with remarkable speed and success to remote and hybrid operations. I know it didn’t feel like that at the time. It was scary and chaotic, and for teachers it was unbelievably stressful at a time when it already seemed like the stress couldn’t get much worse. I won’t minimize any of that, but we should all think about what it would have been like if the pandemic came even ten years earlier. We wouldn’t have had remote learning immediately, and we would have been faced with the choice between suspending learning altogether or carrying on and exposing both teachers and students to a deadly virus. As I considered this in the spring of 2020, a parallel thought kept nagging at me. It was a trivial thought, I admit, but it was a persistent one. I couldn’t help but worry that all of this was going to be the death of the snow day.

Once schools get used to remote learning, and, more importantly, to being able to switch between in-person and remote on a day’s notice, there will never again be a justification for taking a day off due to inclement weather. Gone forever is the magic of that precious, occasional, interruption of the routine.

I don’t mean to weigh this issue beside the very real struggles faced by teachers, parents, and students as a result of Covid — not to mention the enormous tragedy of a global pandemic that has cost more than five million deaths worldwide. Talk about a first world problem! It’ll be okay if the snow day becomes a thing of the past.

But I do think the issue is worth considering, and not just for the nostalgia. The snow day is a prism through which we can inspect real problems facing our society, problems that touch on work, family, education, and mental health.

In some ways the problem of snow days was a precursor to the problems of the pandemic. It is often a fine line between winter wonderland and natural disaster. Many adult businesses carry on despite snowstorms, so what are working parents supposed to do about childcare when the school system suddenly shuts down? The historic pivot to remote learning kept education afloat, but it intensified the problems of working parents just like snow days used to. Snow days were also much harder on rural families than on urban ones. If it’s difficult to get the kids to school when school is just around the city block, imagine what it’s like to have to transport them 50 miles in a whiteout. Part of why the schools were so successful in switching to remote learning in 2020 was that many states already had remote learning pilot programs to support the needs of rural communities. Long before Covid, educators were looking at remote schoolwork as a solution for snow days.

As much as I sympathize with the people whose job it is to consider these problems, and the families that must grapple with the consequences, I still think most people would agree that there is a hidden but significant value in a snow day.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the human work week has been solidifying and strengthening its control over our lives. New technologies allowed us to master the measurement of time; corporations and governments then used time to master us. There have been plenty of material benefits from this organization of time, but something has been lost as well. We constantly hear about ‘burnout’ and the increasing rates of diseases like depression and addiction, which can all be traced to the social evolutions caused by the rise of industry.
Kids can sense this. Already in elementary school, they see that their lives are organized by schedules and necessary routines, for better or worse. I didn’t love snow days because I hated school. I actually liked school a lot. I loved snow days because they came unexpectedly. They took a day that was planned out for me and turned it into a day I could plan for myself.

One of the big costs of remote learning, and remote work in general, is that the subtle dynamism of in-person collaboration is lost. Kids learn much more in school than historical dates and algebra; they learn how to be persons among people. Snow days are a similarly unquantifiable part of a normal education. They teach us that unforeseen events can and will disrupt the routine. What will you do with this unexpected free time? Will you waste it zoning out in front of the television? Or will you go outside and build a snowman?

In an era likely to see more extreme weather events, remote learning will be a necessary component of a world-class education system. But let’s have resilience too, the kind that allows us an occasional afternoon for an unplanned snowball fight.

W. W. Matteson is a writer who lives in Hope, where he weaves tales about Maine’s coast and mountains.

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