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In Praise of Snow Days and Two-Hour Delays

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As is often the case this time of year, yesterday we had ourselves a snow day.

Most people know that teachers and students, by and large, love snow days. The kids love them for obvious reasons: a day spent away from the toil of school, a day away from test prep, a day away from the reflexive movement from class to class and the stress of everyday life in school is something kids look forward to without even thinking about it. Many teachers like snow days too, for a lot of the same reasons. For them it's also nice to get a break from the grind, to be able to just stop and breathe once in awhile amid the ongoing pressure of the school year.

Our snow day yesterday was mostly uneventlful, but not without controversy. It came and it went, but didn't really begin on time because our superintendent waffled on making the call until after buses had already begun running in the morning. I guess he didn't have access to a weather forecast, or to a window. It made his Twitter feed an entertaining place to be for awhile, but it passed quickly. After the snow stopped he made a quicker decision: school start times for today would be delayed today for two hours.

I can't say for sure, but I think if we polled most teachers who live in areas where snow days are common they'd say that the two-hour delay is the best thing to ever happen to the school schedule—much better than the traditional snow day, not least of all because two-hour delay days still count. Parents may disagree; whether the school's start time is delayed or school just never opens to begin with, time away from school tends to be disruptive to family schedules and to the work schedules of adults. Snow days and delayed openings place a special burden on working class parents who aren't able to change their shifts or work routines on short notice (early dismissals, like the one we experienced yesterday, have to be even worse). In a society that tends to treat lower income hourly employees as interchangeable parts, tossing their schedules around like beanbags only adds salt to the wound. It's certainly true that a lot of kids go home to empty houses on days when school lets out early, and that many of them would be safer at school even with a winter storm raging outside.

But a lot of this is brought about because of the sudden change in the school schedule. What if parents and kids had more flexibility, and didn't have to scramble at six or seven in the morning to get to school? My wife, who is a teacher, remarked this morning that she wished every day could be like today. Our two oldest children—one is in high school, the other in middle school—ride the same bus in the morning. Normally it arrives at 6:45. (6:45!) This morning, it came at 8:45. Our two youngest, who are in elementary school, normally get on the bus at 7:50. This morning they got on at 9:50. My wife, who drives 45 minutes to get to work, didn't leave this morning until after 9:00. Normally she's up well before 6 and out the door before 7. In short, we had a nice, leisurely morning. Everyone ate breakfast. Nobody was rushed. Our two youngest squeezed in some reading and played with each other before heading to school. My son and I chatted about college basketball. On most mornings, it's a relentless and stressful race against the clock.

Why do we do this to our kids and the people who teach them? The quick answers are unsatisfying. Well, that's how the working world is, we're told. But kids aren't part of the "working world," and study after study shows that teenagers, especially, tend to stay up late and need more sleep than they are getting. If you think getting a 16-year-old to bed at 8:00 on school nights is a solution, you obviously don't live with a teenager. If you think making them wake up early anyway somehow will make them better people, think again. Zombies may be "disciplined," but they're still zombies.

Another common explanation is sports. School sports teams, we're told, need time in the afternoon for practices and competitions, and to save daylight that means starting school earlier. But doesn't this prioritize the needs of a few students over the needs of everyone? My son plays baseball, and his season has already started even with tryouts a month away. Twice a week he gets up at five in the morning to go work out with the team before school, and he hasn't even made the team yet. So there goes that argument anyway.

We're also told that staggered start times for high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools enable older students to be home in time to babysit younger siblings if parents can't be home. I searched but have never found any study that confirms the frequency with which this happens. But, anyway, this doesn't mean we can't have staggered start times and start later. And, again, studies show that high school students—who, in this model, start earliest so they can end earliest—are the ones who would benefit most from a later start time. Elementary aged kids, on the other hand, are better equipped to start school earlier. My own non-scientific data tells me that my kindergartener is in bed every night before 8:00 and awake every morning before 7:00, even when she doesn't have to be. Our oldest son, who is 15, gets to bed at a reasonable hour (often before 10:00), but hits a wall every few weeks and just comes home and crashes. On those days he'll sleep for as many as 12 hours trying to catch up on his rest.

There's just no good reason for school to start as early as it does—at least no good reason I've ever heard. On the other hand, we've got about 50 million reasons to turn every day into a snow day, or at least the kind of day that sometimes comes after a snow day—the kind of day that starts with a two-hour delay. Just imagine: then we'd never need to have two hour delays anymore either. Mornings like the one we had today are the kinds of mornings that really make us root for snow around here.

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