Voices: Yes, school is vital – but so are snow days

Temperatures are set to plummet below freezing this week, and icy surfaces and snowfall are expected across Northern Ireland, southern Scotland, northern England, northern Wales and parts of the Midlands.

Putting the disruptions and delays that usually accompany this weather aside, I have always felt that when snow falls, a certain magic descends on the earth. The soft hush that muffles the sounds of everyday life. The delight of placing a first footstep on the pure, crisp snowy blanket covering the ground. A drab British street, suddenly transformed into the setting of a Hollywood Christmas film.

During the previous cold snap in December, as my baby son chuckled in sheer wonder at the white stuff falling from the sky and the children on our street made snowmen bigger than themselves, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of loss. Because among all the joys that snow brings, there is still none greater than the lost magic of a snow day.

Even as an adult now, I can instantly recall that visceral excitement. Huddling around the radio, waiting to hear your school’s name amid the long list read out by a radio presenter who was probably wishing for a snow day themselves at this point. The pure elation when your school was finally called. Throwing off the shackles of your school uniform and hurling yourself against the powdery ground to celebrate with a snow angel or two. Thoughts of tests and homework and teachers and rules drowned out by the delicate pitter-patter of snowflakes caressing your face.

But in 2022, things seem a little less magical. It’s not just because my adult mind is filled with boringly grown-up things like travel disruption. Nowadays, schools send their updates via Twitter or straight to parents’ phones through an app. No more being glued to a radio from the crack of dawn. And the legacy of the pandemic, which equipped schools with robust online learning systems, means that in a heartbeat, they can easily pivot back to online learning.

Well and truly dead, the snow day (if schools close at all) has been replaced with a day of back-to-back live lessons. Less snow day, more stare-out-of-your-window-longingly-at-the-snow-all-day day.

Don’t get me wrong, as a teacher, I understand more than most the importance of continuity in education. Schools are now better prepared than ever to step in to prevent extensive lost learning time in the future. But for all of the skills and lessons the pandemic has imbued us with, has it made us, as a nation, actually lose a little bit of flexibility? A little bit of childlike wonder?

Some things – like snow – are passing, fleeting beauties to revel in before they disappear. Quadratic equations and Romeo and Juliet will still be there when the last snowfall has melted away (or, more likely, turned into brown sludge). But what won’t wait for our kids is a day spent making snowmen with the neighbours’ children who they’d never spoken to before. A glorious, rare day spent just being children. Being outside. Breathing in the fresh air.

I’d hazard that they learn more about the properties of liquids versus solids by hurling snowballs at each other than they do in front of a computer screen. And next time they’re asked to describe a beautiful scene in an English lesson, maybe they could recall the kaleidoscopic snowflakes drifting through the sky? And as for the physical benefits, as a deeply exercise-phobic child, I moved more dodging my brother’s icy missiles on a snow day than I ever would have in a PE lesson.

Childhood in the modern age is already so weighed down with mental health struggles and body image issues and the pressures of social media. In the current economic climate, more children than ever are having to wear the adult burdens of financial instability, housing insecurity and food poverty.

Isn’t it worth, just for one day, easing the constraints and the pressures on children, setting aside Zoom and the Microsoft Teams and allowing them to take in the winter wonderlands that await us outside? After all, what is snow without a proper snow day to enjoy it?

Yes, we can make our children sit through algebra and translate sentences in French, but aren’t there lessons to be learned outside that a day in front of the computer can never compete with?