School & District Management

In: Cocoa. Out: Chromebooks. E-Learning Didn’t Kill Old-Fashioned Snow Days, Educators Say

By Evie Blad — January 19, 2024 5 min read
Kiara Unger-Fields, 4, of Johnstown, Pa., hangs on as she rides an inflatable tube pulled by her pup Neo, a Rottweiler, at Roxbury Park in Johnstown, Pa., on Jan. 11, 2024. Unger-Fields was accompanied at the park by her father Roshon Fields.
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Reports of the snow day’s death are greatly exaggerated.

After 2020’s rapid, rocky shift to remote learning, some parents and educators predicted the traditions of a snow day—exciting, impromptu sled rides and cozy time with family—would be replaced forever with virtual lessons at home.

Campbell’s Soup got out its crystal ball, launching a marketing campaign to “save the snow day.”

But as winter weather sparked disruptions and dangerous road conditions as far south as Texas this month, many educators reported that their districts called full days off—with no Chromebooks or Zoom classrooms in sight.

In interviews and replies to social media queries, some teachers and administrators pointed to the logistical challenges of ad hoc remote learning setups. Some said state laws limit their ability to teach online, even for short periods. And still others said remote learning would only kick in in the case of repeated or extended closures.

“Snow days are magical and allow for much-needed play, especially for older students,” Maryland high school teacher Rebekah said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

A fresh wrinkle in the snow-day decision

The virtual learning conundrum has added a fresh wrinkle to what was already a fraught decision for district leaders: when to cancel school for inclement weather.

The call on school cancellations presents a balancing act of conflicting logistical issues and public opinions, superintendents said. In geographically large districts, the quality of road conditions can vary greatly from one neighborhood to the next. Some parents appreciate a day of watching cartoons with pajama-clad kids; others who still have to work struggle to find childcare at the last minute.

If leaders call too many snow days, they may have to cut into planned summer breaks to make up time at the end of the year. And if they’re too stingy, they may see upticks in absences during inclement weather.

In Houston, state-selected Superintendent Mike Miles drew pushback from the city’s teachers association on Jan. 17 when he said he regretted closing schools for winter weather.

“I’m sure many of us do know about poverty,” Miles said in comments reported by ABC13, a local news station. “There were kids yesterday who did not eat a hot meal. There were kids yesterday who were left alone by themselves at home. There were kids babysitting siblings when they were young.”

Cannon Lambert, 6, left, and Edward Nahar, 7, race down a hill using laundry baskets for sleds on Jan. 15, 2024, in Tupelo, Miss., as they enjoy the snowy conditions.

The remote learning question presents similar tensions for district leaders. On the one hand, online lessons may help minimize learning disruptions as educators continue urgent academic recovery work. But researchers, educators, and parents have questioned the effectiveness of remote instruction. And calling a remote learning day may leave schools on the hook for low virtual attendance if students don’t—or can’t—log on.

“I support teaching and learning every day,” Winchester, Va., teacher Michael Siraguse wrote on X after his district switched to virtual learning Jan. 16.

“Virtual days have their pros and cons, but using them to attempt to keep students in a routine is helpful, as is having digital tools for them to work asynchronously,” he wrote.

Other educators said they are glad their districts did not attempt online lessons during inclement weather.

“It boggles my mind that we know virtual learning was a problem [during COVID-19 closures], yet have decided it’s a solution for snow,” Virginia middle school teacher @jc4_ed said on X. “Unless there are extensive [snow] days, this should not be an option for public schools. It’s inequitable and robs kids of a joyful part of childhood.”

Using e-learning to minimize disruption

Some district leaders said it’s not worth scrambling to stand up virtual classrooms at the first sight of snowflakes. But, if bad weather drags on for days, their online learning policies kick in.

“We typically have a full day off up until two snow days,” Barbara Mullen, the superintendent of Rush-Henrietta, N.Y., school district, told Education Week. “The third day is virtual learning.”

Losing too many instructional days during the school year might cause the district to extend the end-of-year calendar too far, she said.

“Unlike many districts in the south, we start after Labor Day,” Mullen said. “If we had pure snow days, we wouldn’t get summer until after July 1st.”

Complications with remote learning

There are barriers to e-learning beyond public opinion, educators said.

Amid frustration over extended COVID-19 closures, some states enacted laws that restricted districts’ ability to use virtual or non-traditional lessons. That’s the case in Massachusetts, where state officials determined in 2021 that remote learning would not count toward schools’ mandatory 180-day attendance minimums. Those policies can tie districts’ hands.

“I’d like a little more examination of the issue, rather than wholesale dismissal,” wrote Tracy O’Connell Novick, a Massachusetts parent.

Children race each other down the sledding hill at the U.S. Capitol, as schools are closed due to a winter snowstorm on Jan. 16, 2024.

Still, others said a virtual learning day wouldn’t make sense during bad weather now that in-person learning is the norm during the rest of the school year. Some schools don’t make it a habit to send Chromebooks home with elementary school students, teachers said.

“We’ve also had a lot of power outages and internet outages with this [storm] system, further reducing potential access,” Portland, Ore., teacher Dena Lambert wrote on X.

Several district leaders said they wouldn’t consider online learning until they used up snow days that are already “built in” to school calendars. With that option, districts can close schools for a certain number of days without risking the need to add additional class days at the end of the year.

Others without such flexibilities told Education Week in-person learning is worth the calendar shift.

“We called an emergency day that will be made up at the end of the year,” Rochester, Ill, Superintendent Dan Cox wrote on X. “Our district prioritizes in-person instruction and believes that is the best path for us to deliver the highest quality education for our students.”

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