Commentary

The Death of Snow Days | Opinion

December 10, 2021 6:00 am

Snow-covered school buses are parked during the winter holiday in Cloquet, Minnesota. Photo by Tony Webster/Minnesota Reformer.

Late last year, an email arrived in my in-box from the Minneapolis Public Schools, with an odd heading: “We’ve changed how we handle winter weather.” 

I read on:

Earlier this year, the Minneapolis Board of Education approved an e-learning plan for our schools. That means that MPS no longer has to cancel school due to bad weather.

Were they talking about snow days? They didn’t say snow days.

While this likely won’t be much of a change for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19, it will be once we can return to in-person learning, no matter when that is.

The email did not say, “We are canceling snow days.” It didn’t even use the word, “snow day.” But as I parsed the anodyne, bureaucratic language (designed to obscure, not clarify), it sure seemed like that’s what they were saying: Whenever it snowed, it would be like a little slice of pandemic all over again. 

The email continued: 

If you don’t agree with our decision, as always your family can make the choice that’s right for your student by following your school’s standard absence procedures. 

Translation: If you don’t agree with our decision, screw you. 

The message felt like one more dump on the pile of crap that was 2020. But who had the energy to fight it? No one knew when we would be back in school anyway, so it didn’t seem to matter. Besides, could they really just kill the snow day?  Without consultation? Without clarity? Without ceremony?

Time dragged on. Most of us forgot about this email. Then in November of 2021, almost exactly a year later, another email arrived, vaguely titled: “Inclement Weather and E-Learning.”

Instruction for MPS students will continue this winter even on days when winter weather makes travel difficult. While some of us will be sad to see “snow days” go, the State of Minnesota has approved up to five “e-learning days” for schools annually. 

Translation: The snow day is dead.

Among the many diktats handed down by Superintendent Ed Graff (yes, that’s how it feels), to me this was the most egregious and heartbreaking. Snow days are part of our history. They are part of our culture. They teach us to love winter. They teach us to respect nature. Deep in our hearts, every one of us still hopes for a snow day. 

Unlike the pointless shuffling of the Minneapolis School District’s “Comprehensive District Design,” the death of the snow day changes the fabric of childhood across the city. Growing up in Minnesota, I remember looking outside to see the world covered in white. Everything stopped. The world was silent and clean, like a new space had opened up in time, one we could fill with whatever we wanted. Snow days were one of the purest joys of youth.

Less so for parents…I know this as the father of teenagers who had their share of snow days. But if snow days were a kind of parental purgatory, e-learning days are a house-bound hell, as parents try to force their child to endure the most soul-crushing kind of screen time. 

Having grown up in the 1980s, I may be too old to appreciate the rigors of modern education. But it’s hard for me to see the death of the snow day as a step forward. For those of us trying to encourage our children to spend less time online, to be less connected, and to be more in touch with their own minds and selves, this is a step in precisely the wrong direction. 

The message it sends to our children is this: You are never off. You can never escape. Your time is not your own. Nothing is more important than your work.  You must always be connected. You must always have your device. And your device must always have you.

There is a good chance my kids will be sick on e-learning days. That’s the least I can do for them. But even so, it won’t be the same as a real snow day. It won’t feel like a gift from the Gods of winter. They won’t feel free. Instead, they will feel like they are skipping school. They will feel the strain of their electronic chains. They will feel the ever-present fear that they are falling behind, losing ground, failing.

From now on, in Minneapolis, the joy of the snow day will be replaced with the dread of e-learning. Our children will never experience the pure feeling that Bill Watterson, poet laureate of childhood, captured over and over in his comic, Calvin and Hobbes. It was the feeling he chose to convey in his final cartoon.  In it, the boy and his tiger wade through waist-deep snow with their sled:

“Wow,” Calvin says, “it really snowed last night! Isn’t it wonderful?”

Hobbes responds: “It’s like having a big white sheet of paper to draw on!”

“A day full of possibilities!” Calvin says. “It’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy…Let’s go exploring!”

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Frank Bures
Frank Bures

Frank Bures is a writer in Minneapolis. He’s the editor of "Under Purple Skies," and the author of "The Geography of Madness." If you’re downtown, you can take his audio tour, "Minneapolis River Walk: History Along the Mississippi."

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