Head of School Blog

Let it Snow, Let is Snow, MAKE IT STOP!

Jill Singleton
We all remember the childhood thrill of the Snow Day. You wake up to an unexpected winter wonderland, and you know before anyone even tells you that school is closed for the day! Your heart races as you run through the long list of things you want to do that day: make a snow man, have a snow ball fight, build a snow fort, sled down the biggest hill. And then there’s the reward for “accomplishing” all of your goals for the day: a nice warm cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows melting on top while you sit in front of your favorite television show or cartoon. As you take your first sip and practically scald your tongue, you glow with a sense of inner contentment as you wish that every day could be as glorious as the day you are experiencing.

And then you grow up, and for most of us, our relationship with snow begins to change. I remember mine changing drastically with the birth of my son, Elijah, in the winter of 1996, one of the snowiest winters in my lifetime. The snow caused us to be house-bound that year. With two babies under the age of two, I certainly couldn’t maneuver my double stroller through the barely shoveled paths on our quaint residential streets. Once we finally did get out, people were too grouchy from all the snow to make a fuss over my new baby, who was wrapped from head to toe to ward against the relentless cold.
When I became a school leader 16 years ago, my relationship with snow took a quantum leap. With the potential of a storm and the subsequent need to close the school, snow lost all of its magic, and was replaced instead with “What are working parents supposed to do if we close?” and “How are we going to make up missed curriculum?” No amount of creative thought and discussion seemed to yield a good solution. The bottom line is that if teachers and staff can’t make it to school, the school can’t run, and no school wants to be in the position of asking its dedicated staff to take a safety risk and drive on roads so dangerous that every newscaster in the area is broadcasting warnings and sharing stories of storm-related accidents.

So what about the idea of making up days missed due to snow? On the face of it, this sounds like an elegant solution. Shave off a few days from the February or April breaks, or tack on a couple of days in June. Once one digs a littler deeper into this prospect, however, the problem with this idea becomes painfully apparent. A good number of parents, teachers and staff plan trips for these weeks as much as a year ahead of time. Even with some advance warning, a significant number of people would find it impossible to change their plans. The result would be a school that is at best 60% full (this would include an equal proportion of teachers), and a decision to plow ahead with new curriculum with so much of the population missing would be impractical and unwise, to say the least. And the idea of making up extra days by tacking them on at the end of June is – at least in the world of education – simply not a viable option. [On a side note, I’ve consulted with several school heads who have tried making up days in June, and the consensus is that the time was not meaningful. Finally, being required to come to school on a day that was once “the glorious start of summer vacation” would understandably breed resentment in children – hardly the mindset that supports productive class time.

Several years ago, after losing three or four days to snow, I engaged my teachers and staff in a discussion about the topic, and again we went around and around trying to find possible solutions. We came up with what we felt was the best solution of all – add days to the school year so that we have a built-in “buffer” to withstand some emergency closings. The National Association of Independent Schools recommends between 160-170 days, so we added a few as our buffer; this year our calendar has 174 days of school. This solution has served us well. Last year, even after losing a whole week to Super Storm Sandy, all grades were able to cover their curriculum with a few minor internal adjustments, without causing undue stress on the children. In follow up discussions after the storm, we decided to add “Emergency Closing Packets” (which has taken on the vernacular of “Snow Day Packets”) to our practice, providing students with work when school is closed due to snow or other emergencies so that we can keep our curriculum on track.

As I write this blog posting, the prospect of another snow day this week looms large on the horizon and is a distinct possibility. Early in the week I once again gathered the admin staff and teachers for a discussion about how we can do better in this area, and it was “déjà vu all over again.” We went around and around about the same issues, coming up against the same impediments that surfaced in previous years. On balance, with added days to the school year and the addition of school packets, the faculty feels confident at this point that all curriculum plans will be able to be delivered despite the missed days.

In the meantime, I am humbly and sincerely requesting any and all ideas parents may have for managing this sensitive and complex topic. Please feel free to send your thoughts and ideas my way, and they will be integrated into our review and decision-making process. Until then, be on the lookout for your child’s Snow Day Packets and come up with a snow day plan that works for your family. One family in our school has children who believe if they wear their pajamas inside out and backwards on the night before a possible snow storm, the outcome will most definitely be a school closing. Don’t want a snow day? Check those tags and seams and make sure your night clothes are just so and perhaps Mother Nature will reward your personal discipline and care.

Comments? Thoughts? Ideas? I’ve love to hear them! Email me: jsingleton@allsaintshoboken.com