The New York City Department of Education recently announced that it would no longer be designating snow days as days off from school. Instead, students will be expected to take part in remote learning. In the subsequent reports and op-eds that abounded in major news outlets, a few voices were supportive of the policy change, but most were decidedly negative. Amy Joyce’s sentiment in the The Washington Post pretty well captures it: “What’s next? Broccoli on the ice cream truck? All-day adult swim?” My kids happen to like broccoli, but a vision of the landscape outside my windows blanketed by fresh snow, while sleds sit unused in the garage and my kids are indoors all day on Google Classroom could fill the opening panels of a bleak graphic novel.
Officials, careful not to be perceived as oblivious killjoys, acknowledged the loss. “We are sad for a year without snow days,” a press secretary for the DOE said. “But,” she continued, “we can leverage the technology we invested in during the pandemic so our students get the instructional days required by the state.” The latter half of the statement was troubling in what it reveals about the city’s, indeed much of the country’s, perceptions of education and its priorities.
While remote learning has its advantages, and may be the preferred and even optimal choice for some students, particularly those with certain disabilities, there is close to a consensus from educators and parents that in-person school is superior for nearly all students. Remote learning on a snow day also brings about many of the same inequity issues as remote learning in general—the kids without adequate technological tools are out of luck, as are those whose guardians must leave for work, not to mention the many students with attention issues or kids in the lowest grades who cannot stay focused on lesson plans delivered via Chromebook. If remote school isn’t school, why is it being treated as such?
Technological solutionism, a term popularized by Evegeny Morozov’s 2013 book To Save Everything Click Here, broadly describes our culture’s increasing penchant for assuming that all problems can be solved by technology. Seen through this frame, it’s not surprising that the DOE views snow days not as a rare reprieve for students from the drudgery of school, but as an obstacle that can be easily overcome by plunking kids in front of screens at home.
More importantly, this policy is merely an extension of the failed notion that remote learning would be a reasonable substitute for actual school over the past year in much of America. (The rest of the world understood that school takes place in a building, where children are in the physical presence of their peers and teachers.) This mindset reduces school to a purely academic endeavor, as if children’s brains are mere receptacles for data, agnostic about the ways in which that data is received. Moreover, it elides the notion that the real value of school is gained largely through the interpersonal relationships between students and teachers, and especially between peers. Those relationships that take place in physical space cannot be replicated on Zoom.
In the 1930s, the Polish-American philosopher Alfred Korzybski first wrote the maxim “The map is not the territory.” Korzybski was describing a truism that is both obvious yet often confused: The representation of something is not the actual thing. That’s not to say that maps, photographs, and other media aren’t useful, but they are not what they represent, even though they often are mistaken to be. Videos of crimes, for instance, are regularly perceived not as a representation but as literal verification of a crime. Yet for all the videos that prove guilt, just as many videos deceive—new footage emerges that shows the scene from a different angle or the period of time leading up to the event, placing the purported crime in a different context, exonerating the suspect.
Even if we intuitively know that virtual school isn’t the same as real school, in a culture where representations are mistaken for the original, remote learning becomes accepted. Perhaps Korzybski’s adage should be updated to say, “The computer is not the classroom.”
In 2014 New York state approved a $2 billion bond act for improving technology in schools. In February of this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo approved $60 million in technology expenditures for 72 school districts in the state, with $16.7 million, the second-largest line item, allocated for “school connectivity.” In my own tiny district, north of New York City, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on software programs and the like for remote learning, and one of this school year’s snow days, much to the chagrin of my kids, was declared a virtual learning day. It’s hard to not view some of these decisions through the lens of a sunk-cost fallacy.
A snow day embodies the opposite of sunk costs; it results from a cool appraisal of the present, and for a child this spontaneity engenders a sort of rationalist carpe diem. When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, there wasn’t a website to check or robocall system in our small New Jersey town to alert families if there was a snow day, nor was it mentioned on TV news. Instead, moms (it was generally only moms) had a phone chain—my mom would get the call from another mom, and then she had to make a call to the next mom on the list. It was a literal manifestation of the telephone game, yet the message was too succinct and obvious to muddy along the way. If the ground was covered white early in the morning and the phone rang, I knew it meant only one thing: glorious freedom.
I grabbed my red plastic toboggan and either sledded in our yard, which had a gentle slope from a wooded area into the open plain of the main yard, or I headed to my school, a 10-minute joyful trudge from my house. There, behind the building, was a massive hill leading to a field, affording hours of sledding. Often a dozen kids congregated there; though, oddly, just as often I was there alone, quietly in my own world, sometimes for hours, the only sounds my boots crunching in the snow and the sssshh of the sled racing down the hill. Eventually I’d make my way back home and enter through the basement, where, because of my temporary snow blindness, I’d disrobe in a disorienting near-darkness, despite the naked bulbs of the recessed lights. Upstairs, hot chocolate from a packet, with miniature marshmallows reanimated in the warm liquid, was savored.
The novelty of those days, of breaking the routine, of delighting in the outdoors and connecting with nature instead of sitting in a classroom, casts a wistful resonance all these years later. With a few details changed, my kids, now 10 and 12, have roughly mirrored this routine each winter themselves … until their canceled snow day earlier this school year. (Their schools were on a hybrid schedule at the time, so half the students weren’t missing an in-person day anyway. Though they all missed the day off.)
Even for the small minority of students who require or prefer remote learning, the value of a surprise snow holiday is still something to be embraced. The belief that eliminating a chance day off a few times a year will “catch kids up” on their studies, while preventing a spell of all-too-fleeting unstructured and often autonomous play, typifies why so many American students are overworked yet undereducated.