In Praise of the Snow Day
Message from the headmaster
True to form, COVID-19 interrupted the normal annual Winter Carnival here at St. Johnsbury Academy, just when a Winter Carnival seems like precisely what we need. It’s important in an icy, snowy place to have an event that marks the beginning of winter’s end—that takes all of the things that can be joyful and magical about the season and celebrates them with the knowledge that we’re soon going to start spring and they will disappear.
After all, we live in a place where for a few months each year you can slide and skate on pretty much any surface, and suddenly move through nature with grace and speed. You can surf on mountains and sled over fields. You can skate outside and play hockey on a pond or on a poured sheet of ice like the one on our lower fields—even some PE classes have gotten in on the fun. (Thanks to our CTE construction and electricity students, you can even skate there in the evening, under lights. View photos here.)
But getting out and playing in the snow—making sculptures, throwing snowballs—for a Winter Carnival with 900 students over two days turns out to be a contact tracing nightmare. I’m proud of our students for being resilient and thoughtful nevertheless, and finding ways to enjoy being together in winter, indoors and out. They are playing virtual games and making videos and dressing up like Disney characters. And on Tuesday, we had an unexpected kind of carnival: a Snow Day.
As a native New Englander, I appreciate the pleasurable stoicism of being prepared for and unfazed by bad weather. We have snow tires, trucks with plows, salt ready to spread, and the right boots. But in the words of one of our faculty members: “Snow days are sacred.”
There is understandable trepidation these days that because of our new capacity to Zoom into class, the snow day will become obsolete. The vast majority of us are feeling frustration and isolation, and some are enduring significant stress and anxiety as a result of this slow-motion pandemic crisis. And even with their accompanying magic here in Vermont, the cold and dark of winter are not exactly mood-boosters. What we know about the physiology of teenagers’ brains makes us particularly concerned about the long-term effects of the pandemic.
Stress isn’t always bad—it can give us good energy to focus and perform, and there’s evidence that some kinds of stress release the hormone oxytocin, increasing our urge to reach out for the help and comfort we need. But stress that continues chronically and over long periods can seriously affect our overall health, and this is particularly true for children and teenagers whose brains are still very much in development and not able to regulate emotion and stress response as adult brains do. They are still plastic—susceptible to being molded, formed and reformed by exposure to experience, ideas, and washes of neurochemicals—and we’re still unsure what the current molding forces will mean for our kids.
That’s why we’re so impatient for students to have access to all the support, structure, and spontaneity that school can provide. It’s critical for teenagers right now precisely because their emotional states can be intense and all-consuming. The highs (first love, academic success, winning the big game) are very high, and the lows (a breakup, a bad grade, missing the shot) can be very low indeed. That said, sometimes the best support we can offer is some grace.
So this week, we took the small gift of a snow day gratefully. We could have a virtual school day when the roads are icy, and in future bad weather situations we may just choose to do that. But these days we need to enjoy every spontaneous good thing, and to remember how much small shared joys can matter. So: long live the snow day—we won’t exactly miss it in the spring, but we can appreciate it now.
Dr. Sharon L. Howell