The COVID-fueled development of distance learning now threatens to destroy a hallowed tradition of American childhood.
One unwelcome side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic was the hasty invention of mass “distance learning” for America’s public-school students. This horrible simulation of education, enabled by the ubiquity of Internet-connected screens, became the new normal. Even schools that continued to offer in-person instruction of some sort got used to the idea of suddenly calling off a school day and moving it to the digital realm. Naturally, it has now occurred to them that they can still have a “day of instruction” on the days when it was too dangerous to bus kids into school at all. And so it is that the end of snow days appears to be upon us:
With a powerful winter storm on the way, we’re going to CANCEL in-person learning for @NYCSchools on Thursday, December 17.
I know we all grew up with the excitement of snow days, but this year is different. Tomorrow will be a FULL REMOTE learning day for our students.
— Mayor Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) December 16, 2020
Other writers, contemplating this oddly momentous development, have indulged their nostalgia for snow days. It’s a natural impulse. I remember using my clock radio to find the correct AM station and listen for my school’s name as the long lists of closings and delays were read off. I’d pray for a cancellation rather than a two-hour delay. I associate my earliest snow days with daytime television like The Price is Right, cans of Campbell’s soup, and the chance to observe how my grandmother kept her house so neat. I remember my best friend getting stuck at our house ahead of the blizzard of 1996, which shuttered our school for a week. There were marathon sessions of Risk, chess, and building out new decks and strategies in Magic: The Gathering. (I know, I know, finish shouting “Nerd!” at your screen and move on.) Occasionally we’d try to dig out our snowed-in cars, or just jump into the snow drifts that came up to our armpits and laugh at each other’s pathetic-looking attempts to escape them. I had a dog, a Keeshond we had rescued from the owner of the hobby shop where we bought Magic cards. That dog loved the snow, and rolled around it in uncontrolled fits of joy.
Distance learning is a farce, as far as I can tell. Years ago we were told that screens were bad for kids, but also that poor kids didn’t have enough access to them. Now “school” has moved onto screens and it is just as full of miscommunication, uncertain connection, and lowered charisma as all digital communication. A remote “day of instruction” might just be 90 minutes of chaos, with children failing to mute or unmute themselves, their siblings dashing in and out of the frame, and the more impish among them making visual jokes to entertain each other. It inevitably ends with exhortations to complete the homework packets that have been sent home.
I don’t know and don’t want to know how school works in climates where the weather is never so inclement as to close schools. I like to imagine that Floridian kids get hurricane days, that they wait until the mysteriously calm eye passes over them to go play outside, and that they personally thank each hurricane by name: “Thank you Irma, for this day spent being bored and building something crazy with erector sets and Lincoln logs.”
Some educators still seem to understand that they are not ultimately in charge of local childhood. On the web right now, a letter from K. Jake Langlais, the superintendent of Lewiston, Maine’s public schools, is circulating. In it, Langlais announces that with four to ten inches of snow predicted, he’s canceling schools:
I ask that you take the day as a true snow day. We want to grab a sense of normalcy where we can. I hope kids and staff watch the snow fall, build a fort or snowman, sled, sip hot chocolate, read a book, rest after the cleanup, spend time with loved ones, watch a movie, and separate from all that has become an adaptive hybrid lifestyle due to Covid-19 for a day.
“Normalcy” is the right word. In a way, it is modern schooling that is an abnormal attempt to regiment education, to Taylorize childhood itself. It is only made tolerable by the surprising presence of good teachers and friends, and the possibility that nature or nature’s God is ready to disrupt even man’s best-laid lesson plans.