Opinion

2020 Even Ruined Snow Days. Great.

They were one of childhood’s most treasured rituals. Oh well.


snow days

This year brought the end of snow days. Illustration by Tara Jacoby

It’s the winter of 1964. I’m eight years old, in the second grade, living with my parents and three siblings in Glenside, a sleepy Montco town with a grocery store, a shoe store, a movie theater, and schools that we walk to: five blocks all by ourselves, not just in the morning and afternoon, but most days, home for lunch and back as well. The greatest things in life are my birthday, Christmas and Easter, in that order. It is in no way better to give than to receive. But there’s one other wonder in my constrained little world, a rara avis I would barely remember between sightings if it weren’t so completely amazing to me.

Every night, my little sister and I put on our pajamas and climb into our twin beds, anticipating nothing more momentous come morning than getting back out of bed and brushing our teeth. But I have the vaguest recollection — confirmed by our older brother and sister — that once, when I was in first grade, I woke on a cold winter’s morning, and Mom told us all to go back to bed. We did, and when we woke again, the sun was high and shining, and Mom had laid out our snowsuits, brought forth from the dark recesses of the cedar chest. “Let’s go sledding!” my brother shouted from downstairs. I can still remember the giddy sense that we were doing something illicit, like shoplifting Tastykakes from the rack at the pharmacy — we, the rule-following, Sunday-school-attending, Boy-and-Girl-Scout-on-our-honor-pledging offspring of the assistant principal at Glenside-Weldon Junior High. Today, we weren’t going to school. Overnight, a miracle had occurred, and because of it, we were set free for the wild hats-and-boots-and-mittens rumspringa known as the “snow day.”

If you ever care to get a heated discussion going, broach this question: Is there more or less snow now than when you were a kid? I’ve never been able to figure out if it’s because we’re shorter when we’re children or due to the vagaries of memory, but almost all the people I’ve asked about this remember much more snow in the olden days, when they were young (no matter when their olden days were). In my case, I suspect that in my child-mind, inclement winters got mixed up with the Cold War that everyone was always talking about. Why else would I recall snowdrifts piled up to the garage roof?

Snow days stick in the mind, even more than half a century later. Maybe it’s because when you’re a kid, school is the one great constant. Maybe it’s because of the tedious business of Mom getting everyone bundled and snapped and zipped and tied into those snowsuits, by the end of which somebody was always whining about needing to pee. Maybe it’s just that when you’re a kid, grown-ups control so much that it’s a breathtaking surprise to realize there are some things even they can’t govern. Or maybe it’s just the Oz-like shock of waking up and seeing that your common, boring everyday world has been magically transformed while you slept into an unfamiliar wonderland of crystal-spangled windows and everything blanketed in white. It’s hard to imagine in this era of child micromanagement, but our moms would shove us all out the back door on our own, setting us free to careen down hills on Flexible Flyers, make snow angels, build highly unstable igloos, and gang up on each other in vicious snowball fights. Sometimes, we’d even cajole somebody’s mom into driving a (seatbelt-less) station wagon full of us to another nearby school with a nifty ­double-decker hill that looms as mighty in my memory as the Matterhorn.

By the time I was in middle school, my friends and I still treasured snow days, but more for the, um, interpersonal aspects of the freedom they brought. We’d make our way to the pond at Carol’s house for ice-skating or the golf-course hill for sledding as excuses, but mostly we were interested in figuring out who liked whom and making sure we had a stick of Doublemint on hand in case it was us. When I look back, what amazes me is how separate from the adult world we kids were in my childhood, like the little savages in Lord of the Flies. We made our own plans, over party lines; there weren’t any cell phones. When somebody broke an arm skidding a flying saucer into a tree (hey, it happens), we had to run to the nearest residence and holler for help. It doesn’t seem likely kids will ever be that wholly untethered from civilization again.

Which is why I was so saddened to read a recent headline in the New York Times: “­Children Love Snow Days. The Pandemic May End Them Forever.”

I should have seen it coming. After all, when the pandemic struck last spring, schools scrambled to hand out laptops, arrange for internet coverage, make sure lunches could be picked up, provide remote lessons in music and art. Depending where you lived, it took some time for the huge educational mother ship to turn about, but by September, everybody was pretty much getting with the program. Which turned out to be a good thing, since it looks like we’re all in this for the long haul.

At some point, school officials started to figure out that though the conversion to remote learning was a giant pain in the ass, there was one silver lining: If kids were already learning online, there wasn’t any need for weather cancellations. Which is exactly what Philly’s school district declared ahead of this week’s megastorm. It’s understandable. Studies show remote learning is already taking a toll on kids — why risk losing another day?

Of course, long before COVID, administrators struggled to balance getting students to and from school safely against the wrath of parents outraged when their summer and/or vacation plans were disrupted by the need to make up snow days. And the weather is an unpredictable foe. Especially with so many two-­working-parent families, calling off classes for what’s predicted to be a blizzard but turns into flurries makes for much unhappiness. (Remember, that’s what got John Bolaris laughed out of town.) Who wouldn’t come down on the side of predictability and stability in the face of such uncertainty?

Well, me.

It’s true I no longer have a horse in this race; my kids left home long ago. I’m not inconvenienced by snow-day closings anymore. But I am full of fond memories of heading out with my daughter and son and their sleds to the hill behind the high school here in our small town, meeting up with other kids and dogs and moms — you don’t think we’d let our precious offspring go sledding without us! — and staying there until everybody’s noses and toes were frozen and even the pups were ready to go home. That sense of delicious feloniousness never died with me; taking full advantage of a snow day let even moms stick it to The Man in a socially respectable way.

And there was no greater feeling in the world than tramping home again, peeling out of one’s wet boots and socks and mittens, and having the circulation slowly return to one’s appendages while sipping hot cocoa (or, for the moms, a toddy) and watching a crappy ’90s movie on the VCR — Matilda, or Home Alone, or The Parent Trap. Those were the days, before Macaulay Culkin “retired” at age 14 and Lindsay Lohan went to rehab and Mara Wilson was opining on what makes child stars go bad. The only things on demand were more cookies. Remember when screen-sharing meant you were all sitting in the living room together? Simpler times, better days.

I have to make a confession. By the time I got to high school, I had an inside lead on the declaration of snow days. We’d moved to yet another small town, and my dad had been named superintendent of our school district — a promotion that made him responsible for deciding when the weather was too iffy for classes to be held. Naturally, we would beg him to err on the side of caution when there was even the merest hint of snow in the forecast. I don’t know that our wheedling ever moved him. He always insisted he made the call by tossing our beagle, Bagel, off the front porch and seeing how deeply she sank in the snow.

After high school, I headed off to college in the South, where I remember snow falling only once in four long years — and it was pretty lame snow at that. This is when the utter lack of blanket-of-white disruption really struck me. How welcome a snow day would have been in the tedium of endless Southern springtime! How even lovelier to sleep in then, when we were all perpetually hung over, than when I was a child!

But now that everybody’s hooked up to the Internet and you can watch the entire Star Wars oeuvre on your phone, we might as well add the snow day to the long list of other fun stuff quashed by COVID-19. Let’s see: There’s Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, play dates, prom, college as we knew it, casual sex, birthday parties, shopping, eating out, weddings, barhopping, movie theaters, live sports, going over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house …

The truth, though, is that COVID didn’t kill the snow day. Even before the pandemic struck, school districts were embracing distance learning, spurred by the havoc wrought by climate change. Administrators were already having to adapt to increasingly frequent hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, and extreme heat like what we saw in Philly this year. In 2018, dozens of school districts in the Northeast, where school buildings frequently lack air-conditioning, canceled classes after temperatures outside climbed past 90 degrees. And if you believe in science (we do), things aren’t going to get better. A new study by Climate Data, a group of scientists and journalists who research and write about climate change, shows that since 1970, the average winter temperature in Philadelphia has risen by 4.8 degrees, and there are 19 more days per year when the temperature is above normal. Talk about your hot tin roof.

So the snow day may have been doomed even without a shove from the pandemic. It’s worth remembering, though, that global warming doesn’t just mean a steady increase in temperature. Climate change also makes for more, greater weather extremes of every kind. Witness how we went all through the alphabet and then some naming storms this year, followed by the nor’easter that walloped the East Coast this week after two nearly snowless years. The Washington Post says the U.S. now spends almost 10 times more responding to natural disasters than it did in the 1980s.

In July of 2019, Governor Wolf, who otherwise always seemed like a fun guy, signed a bill allowing school districts to opt for “flexible instructional days” that would employ technology to provide students with at-home lessons in case of inclement weather or other contingencies. In retrospect, this seems extremely far-sighted, but few districts statewide had put the pilot program into place when Wolf ordered schools closed last March because of ­COVID-19. Suddenly, every day was a snow day, and administrators were struggling to get lesson plans, laptops, and school breakfasts and lunches into students’ hands.

We want to believe — we have to believe — that the havoc wreaked by this pandemic won’t last forever. Someday, perhaps sooner and not later, we’ll return to our offices, our college dorms, our favorite bars, our daycares and shopping malls and local businesses. For some of these destinations, it will be too late. Month after month of lockdowns and restrictions, plus the unforgivable failure of government at the highest reaches to take COVID seriously, will leave pockmarks all across our landscape — not to mention the psychic holes caused by hundreds of thousands of deaths.

In the midst of so much misery, it may seem trivial to quibble about the loss of something as ephemeral as the snow day. But the other day, I read a long article in the Wall Street Journal about the many perks and concessions businesses are offering by way of “creative solutions” to worker burnout brought on by the pandemic. It quoted Hilton hotels chief administrative officer Matthew Schuyler as saying, “I don’t think we’ve yet come to grips with the mental impact this is having on all of us.” Among the benefits that employers hope will offset this impact: increased counseling, well-being check-ins, “good news” memos, child-care benefits — oh, and what the WSJ called “surprise days off,” a.k.a. snow days for grown-ups. What a concept.

For now, most kids are mostly learning from home, chained to laptops like their elders, bereft of all that made me love school in second grade: getting called up to write on the blackboard, playing kickball at recess, spaghetti lunches in the cafeteria. Having the World Wide Web in your pocket isn’t ever going to make up for not getting to hang out with the gang at the playground, with the wind whistling as you pump your swing higher and higher into the air. Maybe now, when we’re stuck at home, we need snow days even more — should decree them, slip them into the schedule at random intervals to give everybody a break.

Because if there’s one lesson you want children to hold onto in life, it’s that uncertainty doesn’t only bring bad things. Sure, you kids have been dealt a shitty hand by the pandemic gods. That doesn’t mean that now and then, out of nowhere, goodness can’t still surprise you. So what if schools no longer declare snow days? Moms and dads can. Some chilly morning this winter when the skies are threatening, before it’s too late forever, connive to turn off the alarm clocks, and dig out the mittens and snowsuits. Declare a Throwback Thursday, or a Fuck-It Friday. Stick it to The Man — and toss a snowball for me.

Published as “The End of the Snow Day” in the January/February 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.