“Snow day.” These two words have charmed New York children for generations, conjuring thoughts of sledding down Central Park’s Pilgrim Hill or building snowmen at Forest Park in Queens; of strapping on ice skates and heating up hot chocolate.
But as school districts adapt to the pandemic by moving classes online, the ability to teach and learn remotely could make the beloved snow day a thing of the past. In New York City, the season’s first big snowfall, which is expected to begin blanketing the streets on Wednesday, will simply mean another day of school in front of a screen for students.
The city’s school system, the nation’s largest, is one of many districts across the United States that plan to forgo the tradition of canceling classes in response to heavy snow this year. Instead, schools are preparing for the now-familiar routine of logging on for virtual lessons, plowing ahead remotely even when winter weather hits.
The shift could be permanent. School leaders in several areas, including the city, are considering whether to continue the online approach to snow days even after most students fully return to in-person learning after the virus has been curbed.
In New York, it is still unclear whether the pandemic has eliminated snow days forever, but on Tuesday Mayor Bill de Blasio called them a “thing of the past.”
“I’m kind of sad for the kids on the one hand,” Mr. de Blasio said, but he also noted that not losing more class time this school year is particularly important. “On the other hand, we’ve got a lot of learning that needs to be done and lot of catching up.”
Similar plans have emerged elsewhere. In Philadelphia, teachers plan to continue classes virtually if the expected storm hits. In Denver, schools moved fully online for large snowfall in late October. And officials in Omaha said last month that students would learn online regardless of snow, even beyond this year. School will not be canceled; instead, snow days have been.
“We are utilizing all of the lessons learned from remote schooling this year to maximize our students’ instructional time,” Nathaniel Styer, a Department of Education spokesman, said on Monday.
Mr. Styer added that schools would receive guidance on how to prepare, now that some children in pre-K and elementary school, along with students with the most complex educational needs, have returned to in-person classes.
Still, with the virus already depriving students of several other traditions — a typical back-to-school, prom, graduation — some parents said they planned to declare their own snow day on Thursday if, as predicted, some parts of the region get more than a foot of snow.
Sarah Allen, a parent in the Kensington neighborhood of Brooklyn, said if streets near her home are coated, her four children will not be attending classes as usual.
“I felt like no matter what kind of learning we’re doing this year,” she said, “this isn’t something that needs to be taken away from kids who have already lost a lot, ranging from not being able to see friends to losing parents to Covid.”
Instead, Ms. Allen said that her husband would take the children to the park to build snowmen and enjoy the weather. Ms. Allen, a first-grade teacher at Public School 372 in Brooklyn, will be indoors, leading instruction for students who show up for class.
But she said she expected attendance to be lighter than normal, given that many of the school’s parents have told her they have similar plans for letting their children have a one-day vacation.
Snow days were a thorny issue even before the pandemic. In New York City, only 11 snow days were called from 1978 to 2013, decisions that parents alternately praised and criticized. Mr. de Blasio was chided last year for calling school off seven times in his first five years in office.
Such calculations can have particularly harsh consequences for school leaders who make the wrong call, as flawed snow day decisions are among the top reasons that superintendents are fired, said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
With complicated logistical and political factors to consider, officials in some areas were already looking for ways to eliminate the potential for school cancellations because of the weather. And this year, many education experts say that keeping students in class is especially vital.
“Particularly because kids have already lost so much learning time, adding to that for no good reason just seems bizarre,” said Joshua Goodman, an associate professor of education and economics at Boston University. “We’re literally in a world in which it’d be super easy to cancel school for an hour of play or give them a break in the middle of the day.”
This year, several districts in New York, including Buffalo’s, Pennsylvania and Vermont plan to opt for traditional days off for snow. In Westchester County, one district will proceed with snow days as usual, noting that negotiations with teachers’ unions would be needed to make a change. Some New Jersey districts that are mixing in-person and remote classes will wait to see how severe a snowstorm is before making a decision.
School officials in Mahwah, a medium-size district in Bergen County, said in a letter to parents that winter weather offered an opportunity for “memory-making,” and that remote classes would not be held if school would otherwise be canceled.
“Snow days are chances for on-site learners and virtual learners to just be kids by playing in the snow, baking cookies, reading books and watching a good movie,” officials wrote.
David Teicher, whose daughters are in kindergarten and third grade at Mahwah schools, was grateful. “As a parent, not having to be the one to deliver that message is really nice,” Mr. Teicher said.
Santa Soriano-Vasquez, the parent of a sixth-grade student on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, initially planned to have her son learn remotely during the storm this week. But after considering the stress of the past few months, she decided to take him out to Central Park on Thursday afternoon and let him miss an hour or two.
“I’m not a parent that needs 100 percent attendance,” she said. “The kids here in New York City don’t really get that many snow days even when it’s snowing, and he works hard when he’s in class.”
The severity of the weather this week might cause a different problem for districts hoping to continue classes online: power outages.
Daniel Katz, who has two children enrolled in a middle school on the Upper West Side, said it was a challenge his children would not face regardless: They will not be attending classes if snow totals are high.
“Especially now when we’ve had to set aside so many things that are normal and sustaining to us because of the pandemic,” Mr. Katz said, “allowing something like a snow day when there’s a significant snowstorm is possibly even more important than before. Just because the platform is virtual doesn’t mean that what’s going outside your window isn’t there.”
His younger child was unsurprisingly thrilled at the plan, he said, but the older student was anxious about missing lessons and schoolwork. But if their neighborhood is buried under mounds of snow, Mr. Katz said his children would be out sledding.
“I’ve actually threatened to turn the Wi-Fi off,” he said with a laugh.