Snow Days: Is School Canceled More Often Now?

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A snow day is the most random of childhood holidays, bestowed from above, with no way to plan for it other than having your sled on standby.

For many parts of the country, this has been an unusually mild winter, and snow days have been rare. But on Wednesday, families in Chicago, Detroit and places across the Midwest were tuning their radios, turning on their televisions and checking their cellphones to learn if the two to eight inches of snow in the forecast would close their schools.

But what constitutes good news in that moment is a matter of dispute: Children protest that a single snowflake is reason enough to cancel class. Parents insist they never got this many days off when they were young. And school administrators remind everyone that a snow day can cause disruptions that they are loath to unleash.

Those divides are the same today as they were years ago, but here’s a look at what has changed over time, from the frequency of snow days, to the effects of climate change, to online lessons making school inescapable.

There is no single database that records the number of snow days in the United States. If you swear that kids were tougher in your day and you had to walk to school through three-foot snowdrifts, uphill, both ways, we cannot prove you wrong.

But let’s take a look at some examples from around the country:

We asked Times journalists to share their snow day memories.

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I spent some of my formative years in Jamaica, where snow was not a thing. But then, rather jarringly, we moved to the suburbs of Buffalo in time for one of the biggest blizzards the city had ever seen. I trudged to school through waist-high snow drifts, and I’m not just saying that. I did. And I swear that one time the drifts were over my head, and my mother knew I was coming home simply by seeing a red hat moving through the piles of white.

Marc Lacey, left, ready to strike

From Hancock, Mich., where there is snow on the ground nearly 200 days a year but schoolchildren rarely get a wintry day off, to tropical Miami, where a “hurricane day” is more likely, one thing is clear to students: Life is not fair.

If you live in the snowier parts of the country, your state’s transportation department probably has the road-clearing drill down pat.

“We don’t call off school for snow when we get six inches,” said Steve Patchin, the schools superintendent in Hancock, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “Sometimes not even for 12 inches.”

As a consolation, the elementary school has its own sledding hill.

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What are “snow days?” If it’s snowing, it can’t really be cold! In Wisconsin, we very occasionally had school canceled for “cold days,” when the wind chill went below negative 40 and creaky school buses failed to start.

Julie Bosman, left, with her sisters and Maggie the Collie

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I vividly recall a snow day in 1976 in Manhattan when my father and I went to Central Park to throw a football around. On the way home, two kids nailed me in the back, hard, with icy snowballs from atop a bridge. My dad, a former C.I.A. agent and World War II paratrooper, immediately went into full operational mode: running up the hill, grabbing one of the kids and dangling him over the side of the bridge until both perps apologized.

Serge Kovaleski

“It means the average is warming,” she said. “There are still swings up and down.”

And because climate change is putting more moisture into the air, the snowfalls that do come can be extremely heavy. So climate change doesn’t mean that snow days are going away.

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I have the distinct recollection of walking about a mile through Queens in my Catholic school uniform and purple leg warmers, freezing, thinking that my birth was an accident of geography. “My butt belongs in Puerto Rico,” the 10-year-old me thought.

Frances Robles, more in her element

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When my family moved from New Delhi to suburban Detroit, no one told us about snow days. So little 10-year-old me spent a long cold morning waiting at the bus stop while my mom watched from the window to make sure I was safe. After what felt like 40 minutes, a nice lady slowed her minivan and asked what I was doing. “Waiting for my school bus,” I said, and she replied: “Oh, honey, it’s a snow day. There’s no school. Go back home.”

Samarth Bhaskar

Michigan sets a minimum of 175 days of school and builds six snow days into its calendar. If there are more than six snow days, it has to start clawing back time by canceling holidays or teacher training days.

However, Ohio, whose 611 individual districts collectively educate more than 1.8 million children, moved several years ago to simply requiring a certain number of hours of instruction.

Not having to “make up” snow days means that family vacations timed to spring breaks or to the end of the school year are not threatened; superintendents can simply add a half-hour or more to enough days remaining on the calendar to make up for any lost time.

But in Nashua, N.H., where Ms. Michaud taught previously, “I had about 20 students at any one time, and at least four of them on average were homeless,” she said. “Even for those with internet access, often the parents weren’t around to help with their homework.”

Ms. Michaud said her oldest son’s school does not participate in the blizzard bag program, and last year he lost seven days of school to snow — all of which were tacked on at the end of the year.

“He’d rather have the time off in the summer,” she said.

That son, Aiden, 13, noticed that his own relationship with snow days has changed over the years.

When he was younger, and free of the chores a teenager can be expected to complete, he ate breakfast as fast as he could on a snow day and ran outside to sled and build snow forts.

Now, he said, “There’s more shoveling.”

John Schwartz contributed reporting.



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