Against (Discretionary) Snow Days

I awoke last week to another foot of snow adding a third blanket of winter to our city of Elms.? I am reminded of the joy I felt as a child waiting to learn if school was canceled.? Something has been lost in our age of instant information — who can forget huddling around the radio, holding your breath while the radio announcer lists the seemingly endless roster of closings?? Today, we received the decidedly less romantic robo-calls at 5:33 in the morning.

Indeed, from this perspective, predictive analytics is going even further in killing some of the fun of anticipation.? My daughter pointed me to a Snow Day Prediction Widget that will calculate today the probability that your school will be canceled tomorrow.? If you input your Zip code, it will automatically pull the latest weather report from the National Weather Service and combine it with 6 other factors (including a 0-3 hype factor: 1 = “Many Kids are Talking About It”):

My first reaction to the calculator was mixed.? I loved the pragmatic application, but I worried that the widget was based on a pseudo regression — with the weights being pulled from intuition and experience.? I’m a “show me the regression” kind of guy.

But my misgivings evaporated when I tracked down the brains behind the site, David Sukhin.? It turns out that David is just a junior in high school in New Jersey.? “I made the formula,” David emailed me, “about five years ago largely based on intuition but tested it using empirical data I collected. I did not do a ‘formal’ regression but I did design the curves based on data I had and how I believed schools would react to weather conditions. About two years ago, I made the calculator automatically get weather information from the national weather service.”

Instead of cranking out a science fair project which (might teach you something but) provides no benefits for others, David has created a site that provides useful information that helps others plan their lives.? By the way, on January 20th alone, his site had over 150,000 hits, and this winter more than 7,000 unique Zip codes have been entered.? College admissions committees take note.? This is just the kind of kid I’d want at my school.

Kill Joy Economics

One of David’s factors might also help test one of my more depressing hypotheses.? Holding other factors constant, the widget will predict a lower probability of a snow day if your school has already been cancelled several times previously this winter.? In other words, if it snows one inch, you’re less likely to have a snow day if your school has already been canceled four times than if your school has only been canceled one prior time.? This factor is interesting to me because it might play a role in testing whether cancelling school for small amounts of snow is a worthwhile social policy.

I haven’t tested it yet but I think most snow days are ill-advised from the perspective of public health and safety.? I think that most children are exposed to more miles of driving on a snow day than they would be if they went to school.? In our house, we often go out to breakfast on snow days, and to the movies and to play dates.? There is something close to an iron law that the more passenger miles driven, the more injuries and deaths.? And when kids aren’t driving around, they are engaging in more dangerous outdoor activities.

From an economic perspective, snow days externalize risk.? Discretionary snow days don’t reduce risk (I hypothesize), they just take the risk off the school districts’ books and shift it to the private parents.? If I’m right, we should expect to see more injuries to kids the first time there is one inch of snow (and the probability of a snow day is high) than the 4th time in a winter when there is one inch of snow (and the probability of a snow day is lower).

But wait. It gets worse.? Discretionary snow days make families scramble for child care.? I’d bet this disproportionately hurts working families that are already hustling to make ends meet.? And unplanned child care is probabilistically higher risk.? In sharp contrast to my happy childhood memories of snow days, I’d predict that discretionary snow days expose some kids to risk of abuse, neglect and/or negligent care when they are dumped last-minute at their uncle Ned’s. (And don’t forget the miles driven on snowy roads to get them there.)

Is Dunkin’ Donuts closed?

Of course, some snows days are justified.? But here’s a simple test:? is the Dunkin’ Donuts still open for business?? The answer is usually yes.? If workers with modest means can still make it in to their jobs at Dunkin’ Donuts (or Wendy’s or McDonalds), then teachers should also be able to arrive at their places of employment.? If conditions are safe enough for city buses to be running, we might ask why school buses can’t safely operate.

Of course, we might be leery about letting corporate greed dictate public policy.? But if we really think that it’s unsafe for workers to get to McDonalds, then OSHA might want to step in and mandate snow days to protect employees on their way to work as well.? Or at least create a defense against retaliatory firing of workers who refuse to come to work — saying it was too risky for my kids to go to school, so I figured it was too risky for me try to come to work.? But let me be clear:? the fast-food industry test for snow days seems a lot closer to my guess of what would maximize public health and safety than the school board test.? And harmonizing the two tests would provide the extra benefit that many working families wouldn’t need to scramble for childcare because the parents wouldn’t have to work when the kids didn’t have school.

The Dunkin’ Donuts test also provides a clue to what it might mean for a school to be open when it snows.? Sometimes a store will be open but with reduced staff and services.? The same idea could be used for schools.? It is not essential that all teachers get to school on time or that normal classes be held.? Instead, we might split the difference by still announcing snow days for light snow, but giving families the option of dropping their kids off at a school which will provide a safe environment even if it can’t muster the personnel to fulfill its usual education mission.? Snow day school could even be re-imagined as a day of creativity and fun.? Occasional warehousing is fine.

Even if it isn’t safe for school buses to operate, parents might have the option of getting their kids to school.? Many parents would exercise this option.

This rant is more evidence that economics is a dismal science.? I take one of our nation’s most beloved institutions and hypothesize that discretionary snow days increase traffic injury and child abuse. Policymakers who care about social welfare need to weigh these (as yet unproven) costs against the joy that millions of children experience when they hear that school has been canceled.? Speaking of which, I woke this morning to learn that my kids’ schools are closed today. Notwithstanding the above, I look forward to putting our health at risk by sledding down Yale Divinity School’s famous “suicide” hill.


Jamie Oswald

I'd also be interested to see what effect these probably unnecessary snowdays have on productivity across the economy. My wife and I both work, so when we get a snow day, at least one of us has to work from home to watch the kids. The older they get, the less of our time that takes as they get better at taking care of themselves, but I have to work well afte they have gone to bed to make up my work, or take some vacation time to alleviate the guilt from spending time having breakfast out or sledding.

Ian Kemmish

" Snow day school could even be re-imagined as a day of creativity and fun."

I seem to recall exactly that happening during the cold UK winters in the 1960's. We went into school, and if not enough children from further away turned up we messed around with plasticine.

Of course, that was before the world discovered no-win-no-fee personal injury lawyers. I imagine most schools no longer do that simply because they are petrified of the consequences should some little darling slip on ice and sprain an ankle. It was noticeable during the recent snow here that the best cleared pavement in town was that outside the solicitors' offices.

Chad

It seems that you are only looking for negatives that might be higher on a snow day, but do not really consider the possible added utility. Sure there may be more risk by not going to school, but that risk is taken in order to pursue utility. You might as well say that we only drive when it is absolutely necessary because driving increases the risk of injury and death. Or that we should only eat the healthiest food. Etc. Economics is only a "kill joy" if it is used exclusively to reduce risk not maximize utility.

Eric Valpey

"I think that most children are exposed to more miles of driving on a snow day than they would be if they went to school"

I'd put money on the converse. But more pertinently, parents have the option of ensuring that their children travel zero miles on a snow day. Also, if you are counting minor injury accidents from recreation in the snow like sledding or snowball fights, I'd argue that kids are generally better off having these kind of risky experiences than not.

Emily

Corrected link:

http://www.snowdaycalculator.com/

emw

Our kids go to the largest school district in Minnesota, which is known for _not_ calling snow days when some neighboring districts do. Their primary argument falls nicely in-line with your rant: The board feels the disruption to families is only worth it in the most extreme of weather events.

My kids grumble, but I have to applaud the board on this one.

Jonathan Katz

Some actual common sense on this subject! Our district has cancelled school for overcast skies (that someone fantasized might produce a little snow, but didn't).

The remark about externalizing risk is very perceptive. I teach physics at a university, and the "safety" people (who don't know middle school science) won't let the faculty use in demonstrations (no student contact) any materials that you wouldn't give a child of six to play with. The students drive cars with gallons of gasoline in the tank, and I am forbidden to burn a eyedropper-full for fear the carbon dioxide will asphyxiate someone.

Ghost

Dunkin Donuts may or may not be open on snowy days because of financial greed. However, schools are also closed on snowy days because of the greed and selfishness of the teachers union contracts; just as you mention, why can't the teachers get to the school if the hard-working individuals at Dunkin Donuts can make it to work?

JohnMcG

This way of thinking about things kind of punctures the conceit that school is more about education than child care.

In particular, the final paragraph about schools offering reduced services, etc.

If a school's job is education, then having a reduced number of staff to come in and direct a reduced number of students in "creative play" (which is likely code for rolling some butcher paper on the cafeteria tables and putting a box of crayons in them) is a poor use of resources.

If it's glorified babysitting, then it makes sense.

Amy

Ahem...

"I worried that the widget was based on a pseudo regression - with the weights being pulled from intuition and experience. I'm a "show me the regression" kind of guy."

Followed by

"I think that most children are exposed to more miles of driving on a snow day than they would be if they went to school. In our house, we often go out to breakfast on snow days, and to the movies and to play dates..."

I think if you are skeptical about other people's judgments drawn from their personal intuition and experience, you should avoid doing it yourself.

Amy

So let me get this straight -- you want to send all kids to school because YOUR family likes to put children in danger on snow days? I agree with Eric; I don't think most parents take their kids out on snow days. At least none of the responsible parents I know.

Jim

I think you all need to relax. Productivity during the winter months should slow down. In fact, everyone should slow down a bit. Make coffee at home, don't drive to dunkin donuts. A snow day is a time for figurative hibernation. It's not just about safety, teachers unions, and liability. Looking at a snow day through the tedious and subjective lens of economics is missing the point. Take a lesson from Whittier's "Snowbound." When the blizzard hits, everyone just chills out:

We sped the time with stories old,
Wrought puzzles out, and riddles told,
Or stammered from our school-book lore
"The Chief of Gambia's golden shore."

Swany

On snow days in Minnesota in the 60s, my high-school buddies and I made a bundly shovelling driveways in the neighborhood.

Michael

In Northern Michigan where I'm from actual snow days are extremely rare. There has to be about 18 inches in the course of a day with 10 or more of those being overnight in a sudden dump. The reason for the cancellation is because the plows weren't able to get the roads done quickly enough. What usually ends up happening even in these cases is a 2 hour delay.

The more common reason for cancellations is that lots of kids take the bus and the weather is cold to let the kids stand outside to wait for the bus. Cold like -20 plus a windchill cold.

William

I don't think it's a case of "If the fast food workers can get to work, teachers should be able to, as well". I think it's a case of having to shovel out fire exits at schools, sidewalks leading to schools for children that walk to school, and removing large snowbanks at street corners where students wait for buses. All that takes time, lots of time. I agree with Amy above: we're having a snow day here in Mass. today and my wife, my son and I are not driving on the roads at all. We're staying at home, shoveling the driveway, sledding, and playing indoors when it's time to warm up.

Amy Ellis

I went to elementary school in Alaska. We did NOT get snow days.

The Snow Day issue needs to be solved on a geographic basis. Snow in West Texas (where I am now) is a bit different than snow in the Sierra Nevadas. Reasonable expectation and availability of equipment & clothing should be factored into the equation in determining school outages. If you live where it snows in piles every winter, you have a reasonable expectation that your city will keep the roads safe, and that your bus driver will know how to negotiate the snow or ice. If you live in the desert, maybe not so much.

I am hesitant to use the "if businesses are open" model for schools, particularly minimum wage paying businesses. You are expected to show up to work even if you are ill (an unsafe condition to be handling food!), so don't depend upon McDonalds for road safety. However, if the city busses are running, that sounds reasonable to me.

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jane

in our district, the determining factor for calling a snow day is whether kids will be able to walk to school safely. teachers' safe transportation is second, and whether or not buses are able to run isn't an issue since we use city buses.

Maurie

A couple points I would like to make

- Most people who work at Dunkin Donuts are not traveling long distances and depending on where in the country they are not driving but taking public transportation. Teachers are. - I drive from Long Island to Brooklyn each day as do many teachers. I do not believe that many people who work at dunkin donuts are going that distance to get to their jobs. In college when I worked at dunkin donuts I went one entire block to get to there.
- On days when it snows and I go work (when all other school districts are close) I have had nearly no kids in my class show up. Bloomberg may not think it is dangerous enough to close schools but most parents do and keep their children home. So I put my life in danger driving to work for a total of 3 children to come to school.I personally take offense to those who say that schools are closed due to the greed of teachers and teachers unions. Schools are often closed because its dangerous out to drive.
- On snow days I don't drive any where and if I had to I definitely do not put my children in the car to go for breakfast or anywhere else for that matter.

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Maurie

"Even if it isn't safe for school buses to operate, parents might have the option of getting their kids to school. Many parents would exercise this option."

A Yeshiva in Five Towns Long Island had this idea a few years ago. Right in front of the school a mother trying to drop off her children slid and went in to a pole with her car injuring herself and her child. Both having to spend the next 6 months recovering from the accident. They now close the school when buses can't run.

Richard

I'm sure lawsuits / liability is the main motivating factor here. Snow days are usually called when it is deemed too dangerous for the school buses to run, and when the child is riding the school bus, the liability is with the school or local government. If parents would sign that liability away, I'm sure the number of snow days would drop dramatically.

We've had 60+ inches of snow so far this year in CT and still only had 4 snow days (including today) I think that's pretty darn good.