It’s a historic day in New York City, and not just because at least half a foot of snow is expected to fall for the first time in two years. Almost one million public-school students were instructed to log into Zoom or Google Classroom between 8 and 9 a.m. for the debut of remote learning, snow-day edition. When asked to forecast today’s attendance, Nathaniel Styer, the NYC Department of Education press secretary, said in a statement, “Standard attendance rules apply, and we look forward to having all our students engage in remote learning tomorrow.” That hasn’t been going very well, as a network outage stymied thousands of parents trying to log on early this morning, and some teachers reportedly told parents to forget it and enjoy the snow.
But for many kids, it isn’t just the tech outage that’s getting in the way of schoolwork. The pandemic showed us that a child’s remote-learning experience depends on many factors: access to a stable internet connection and a working device, having a tech-literate parent with the flexibility to stay home, their grade level, and the school subject, to name just a few. But remote attendance on a snow day hangs on yet another consideration: whether a student’s parents would rather take their kids to play in the park. In a press conference yesterday, Mayor Eric Adams said, “We need to minimize how many days our children are just sitting at home making snowmen.” But I chatted with over a dozen public-school parents yesterday afternoon and found many who planned to do just that.
“I just think it’s some bullshit,” said Lauren, a parent with a fifth-grader and eighth-grader attending public schools in Washington Heights and East Harlem. “Just give them the day off. The way our weather is trending with climate change, this is not going to be an every-week kind of thing.”
“I kind of hate sledding, and even I would like to go sledding,” said Elizabeth, a mother who has three kids — one in kindergarten and two in middle school — on the Upper West Side. For Elizabeth and other parents, the remote-learning decision brings back painful memories of the pandemic year her kids spent stuck in their apartment. When she heard the news, she says she “immediately felt a pit in my stomach over the thought of multiple children on Zoom screens.” Still, she plans to have her kids attend “school” and then go sledding in Central Park before the sun sets. In South Slope, Hana was also stressed about how her four kids would manage. “It’s so hard in a small New York City apartment, logging them in at the same time, making sure the internet connection is good, and finding a quiet space for each child,” she said. “Why can’t they just be kids and go out and enjoy the snow?” Still, she doesn’t want to waste an absence on a day that her kids aren’t sick. Her kids will be in Zoom school until it’s over.
But some do plan to game the system, at least a little. Eva M., the parent of a kindergartener in a Lower East Side public school, plans to opt out of remote learning shortly after morning attendance. She wrote to me late last night, “I feel HEARTBROKEN that my child will never know the joy of watching the local news chyron to see if he gets to stay home and go sledding. We’re going to enjoy this little bit of winter while we can.”
In Carroll Gardens, Michelle says she doesn’t want to disrespect her second-grader’s teacher, who spent time planning a lesson. But she doesn’t want to miss the snow. She says the parents in her class WhatsApp group were fretting all day yesterday about the remote-learning requirements and had planned in-person learning pods to help share the supervision load. They also made plans to meet in Prospect Park for sledding during their lunch period. Michelle herself planned to log in her child at 9 a.m. to be counted for attendance, and then enjoy the day off with her kid.
Late last night, I finally heard from a snow-day naysayer. “This was absolutely the most responsible approach,” Liza said. She has two daughters at a public elementary school in Chelsea, and her husband is a public-school teacher. “I think the idea of a real snow day is somewhat privileged and not the reality for many New York City kids. Many kids can’t actually experience a proper snow day — they live too far from a park or their caretakers have to work.” And Sara, a mother on the Upper East Side, told me she was surprised to find that while watching her three young kids navigate remote learning this morning was a hassle, it also gave her a new and important vantage into her kids’ classrooms. One of her children has been complaining about an in-school bully, and this morning Sara watched that child leave an inappropriate and unkind comment in the classroom chat. “I’m glad that it illuminated behaviors and literally documented them so I can address them with the teacher,” she said.
Many parents were worried about the burden remote learning placed on teachers, especially those with school-age children at home who would need assistance with their own Zoom classrooms. When I pressed the Department of Education on how it would support teachers who had child-care duties today, it didn’t respond.
Amanda teaches high-school music in Manhattan and presumes that at some point today, her two children — ages 1 and 3 — will join her onscreen. Perhaps because it’s just for the day, she sees the inevitable interruption as an upside: “There is a sense of transparency when the students see their teachers as real people that deal with the same struggles as their own mothers and fathers,” she says. But she also acknowledges that her students could have used the day off. “I do feel that the kids are missing out on a traditional snow day,” she says. “There is nothing that can’t be taught the next day.”