Even if we intuitively know that virtual school isn’t the same as real school, in a culture where representations are mistaken for the original, remote learning becomes accepted. Perhaps Korzybski’s adage should be updated to say, “The computer is not the classroom.”

In 2014 New York state approved a $2 billion bond act for improving technology in schools. In February of this year, Governor Andrew Cuomo approved $60 million in technology expenditures for 72 school districts in the state, with $16.7 million, the second-largest line item, allocated for “school connectivity.” In my own tiny district, north of New York City, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on software programs and the like for remote learning, and one of this school year’s snow days, much to the chagrin of my kids, was declared a virtual learning day. It’s hard to not view some of these decisions through the lens of a sunk-cost fallacy.

A snow day embodies the opposite of sunk costs; it results from a cool appraisal of the present, and for a child this spontaneity engenders a sort of rationalist carpe diem. When I was in elementary school in the 1980s, there wasn’t a website to check or robocall system in our small New Jersey town to alert families if there was a snow day, nor was it mentioned on TV news. Instead, moms (it was generally only moms) had a phone chain—my mom would get the call from another mom, and then she had to make a call to the next mom on the list. It was a literal manifestation of the telephone game, yet the message was too succinct and obvious to muddy along the way. If the ground was covered white early in the morning and the phone rang, I knew it meant only one thing: glorious freedom.

I grabbed my red plastic toboggan and either sledded in our yard, which had a gentle slope from a wooded area into the open plain of the main yard, or I headed to my school, a 10-minute joyful trudge from my house. There, behind the building, was a massive hill leading to a field, affording hours of sledding. Often a dozen kids congregated there; though, oddly, just as often I was there alone, quietly in my own world, sometimes for hours, the only sounds my boots crunching in the snow and the sssshh of the sled racing down the hill. Eventually I’d make my way back home and enter through the basement, where, because of my temporary snow blindness, I’d disrobe in a disorienting near-darkness, despite the naked bulbs of the recessed lights. Upstairs, hot chocolate from a packet, with miniature marshmallows reanimated in the warm liquid, was savored.

The novelty of those days, of breaking the routine, of delighting in the outdoors and connecting with nature instead of sitting in a classroom, casts a wistful resonance all these years later. With a few details changed, my kids, now 10 and 12, have roughly mirrored this routine each winter themselves … until their canceled snow day earlier this school year. (Their schools were on a hybrid schedule at the time, so half the students weren’t missing an in-person day anyway. Though they all missed the day off.)

Even for the small minority of students who require or prefer remote learning, the value of a surprise snow holiday is still something to be embraced. The belief that eliminating a chance day off a few times a year will “catch kids up” on their studies, while preventing a spell of all-too-fleeting unstructured and often autonomous play, typifies why so many American students are overworked yet undereducated.

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