Wednesday, February 14, 2007

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Must... resist.... looking back through rose-colored glasses

My son is very excited, because today is his very first snow day from school. I'm happy for him -- all children deserve at least one snow day a year. There's something much more enjoyable about an unplanned day of leisure (for the children -- this sort of thing is unbelievably inconvenient for the parents) than the expected weekend days.

That said, I can't shake the feeling, looking outside my window, that Massachusetts has gone unbelievably soft. There is, as I type this, less than an inch and a half of accumulation outside. Why, when I was a lad.... oh, hell, you know how the rest of that sentence will go.

This leads to an interesting question -- beyond the natural, likely erroneous belief that we were just physically hardier back in the day, what could explain this perception that schools call snow days with less weather now than they used to?

1) Media hype. Last night the spouse turned on the local news to catch a weather forecast, and the anchors looked positively orgiastic in their glee about the impending storm. The growth and sophistication of media marketing is greater now than a decade ago, and this affects expectations about the future;

2) Liability laws. School districts are more risk-averse because of the possible liability that comes with not calling a snow day and then having a bus get into an accident.

3) Traffic congestion. The problem isn't the weather, it's the weather + an increased number of cars on the road.

4) When it's been a mild winter, everyone jumps at the first appreciable snowfall.

Parents, provide your guesses here.

posted by Dan on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM


1 and 4, especialy 1. I wouldn't think liability would be a big concern, because the school district would have insurance. But although I'm not sure if schools close quicker than they did when I was a boy, I can definitely say that local TV and radio hype threatening weather more than they did 40 years ago.

posted by: y81 on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

I'm not a parent, but I am a teacher, and let me assure you, #2 is foremost in the minds of district officials. It's not just insurance either--if you blow the call and something bad happens, you will be pilloried on the front page of the local newspaper (just such a thing happened to the superintendent in my hometown in the last few weeks.), which no public official wants, elected or not. That said, 1 and 4 do seem to play a part, albeit a very small one. In Kentucky, at least, state testing occurs in the spring, and days missed in the winter are tacked on to the end of the year--AFTER the state tests have been given. So there is a powerful incentive to not "waste" snow days because you are losing instructional time to prepare for those tests.

posted by: CMC79 on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

As for schools, I'm sure CMC79 is right, but the media goes into overdrive for any inclement weather anymore. A snowstorm used to be, well, a snowstorm, but now they are all named. Hoping to recapture the "glory" of the "Blizzard of '78," we get "Valentines Day Northeaster!" or the "April Fools Day Blizzard!" of a decade ago. What's really lame is when they attempt to name a storm with no corresponding holiday, such as "Noreaster 2000! or "Spring Noreaster!" Even a good soaking rain in April will get wall-to-wall coverage and, if the storm is really lucky, even a title.

posted by: Bill N on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Mostly 4 and a dash of 2. This is basically the first snow that we've gotten in Boston this winter, and most schools have a certain alloted days off for snow that kids don't have to make up, say 5 or 6. Because its already mid-February, schools don't have to take the risk of driving piles of kids in unsafe buses in slick weather.

posted by: Crhis on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Great post-
And your observation applies throughout the country. In the midwest, we are proud of our 'hearty pioneer' status, and see the east coast and south as being dominated by a wussy attitude toward snow.
At least it used to. A few years ago (actually, probably 10 years ago), Lincoln, Nebraska cancelled the entire WEEK of class based on an ice storm during the weekend (the argument being that ice would cause tree branches to fall on children walking to school). Naturally enough, it warmed up, and the snow was basically gone by Wednesday, so the malls were filled with children. To add insult to injury, the sporting event call was made later in the week, after the snow had melted, so that although school was cancelled for the week, high school football wasn't and the games were played on Thursday night as scheduled. An utterly humiliating result-midwesterners are as sissy as the rest of the country after all.
As to why? I honestly think its a reduced work ethic. Frankly, it really doesn't matter whether school takes place or not, so why not cancel? Why not play it safe? Whether traffic accidents, or falling treebranch accidents, or slipping on the ice-the stoic 'grit your teeth and get the job done' attitude has died away. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing-if you're rich, why sweat the little stuff? And we (the US, today) are very rich. And one day in school, when the traffic will be a bear, and someone might slip on the ice, and your boots will be sloppy and wet, is very little stuff indeed.


posted by: sk on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Don't forget that inclement weather give 'up-and-coming talking heads the chance to be seen outside in bad weather gear. I never get tired of laughing at a story from "on the scene" with a junior reporter standing, shivering or wet or both in front of a building for no reason except to be 'on location.' I always figured they were being punished or hazed or something.

posted by: JorgXMcKie on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

In Wisconsin we hear mostly complaints from guys who want to go ice-fishing and owners of snowmobiles that it isn't cold enough and there isn't enough snow. Now that we're having a cold spell some of the people I interact with professionally are enthusiastic about the idea that a good, hard and prolonged freeze may check some of the invasive species that have showed up here in recent years. I'm guessing that's a thought not widely shared in other parts of the country either.

Having lived in the Washington, DC areas years ago I well remember the feeling of incipient panic that gripped the city whenever freezing temperatures and precipitation coincided, and I guess I still do consider this an East Coast kind of thing (though my sister lives in Maine, and she thinks it's a Massachusetts kind of thing). I don't watch local news very often, so I can't speak to media hype, and as to schools I wonder if some of them don't decide to shut down on snow days just to avoid complaints and hassles from parents.

posted by: Zathras on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Have you been outside in the last two hours? At the rate its sleeting, I think they made the objectively correct call, without any need for explanations 1-4. If it picks up over the course of the next hour (or has picked up since I went inside, or is already stronger in the suburbs), well, I think it was the right choice.

Also think of it as society's Burkean mechanism for staggering commuting traffic on very snowy days. I imagine that it is a good thing (in the CBA sense) that the parents who stayed home today with their kids, stayed home today with their kids.

posted by: treagg on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Definitely 4. As a parent, it does seem the first (if any) snowday of each season is a pitiful call (really? you gotta be kidding me?). All that follow are tougher slogs--and if you have three already even the storm of the century won't get school called off.

It did seem like it snowed a lot more when we were kids, but then we were only 3 feet tall...

posted by: Kelli on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

It may not be deep, but it looks pretty slick out there to me. And, as Treagg says, it may be picking up, so getting kids home could be a problem.

posted by: Bernard Yomtov on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Dan, I grew up in MA. It is an open secret that the school bus contractors are one's who decide whether or not to call school off.

posted by: msj on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

When I was in school in Mass., we had a Russian superintendent who wouldn't cancel school unless a good six had fallen. I still remember getting on the front page of the town paper covered in snow while walking home one day. (Incidentally, there were hills at both ends of the route, so I also walked uphill both ways.)

In any case, if it is in fact the lawyers, I'm saddened that Boston has gone the way of New York. I'd always thought we were more sensible up in New England.

posted by: cure on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Reporting live from DC, I can assure you that the "incipient panic that gripped the city" is alive and well. Thursday everything-- including The Federal Government-- closed early due to the pending ice storm (as they say-- terrorism, no problem, but an inch of snow....). Yesterday, all the schools were closed, and again, today, all the schools are closed. My university opened on a 2 hour delay yesterday, and that made a lot of sense. Once the roads are plowed and treated with salt / sand, they are fine. But all the local news stations have broken out wall to wall StormCenter coverage and everyone is afraid some poor kid is going to slip on some ice and break an arm. So you get a de-facto take your daughter to work day.

posted by: peter on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

The line you give to your kid is this:
When I was your age, to get to school, I had to hike two miles through six feet of snow, in my bare feet, uphill both ways.

posted by: William Sjostrom on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

When I was in school in Massachusetts in the '50's and '50's, it did seem like there were very few snow days. The state required a minimum of 180 school days, and my town scheduled over 200 days. It took icy conditions or six inches plus to call a snow day, no more than three or four a year. A nearby town, Westport, had lost a couple kids in a bus accident, and they used about 14 days a year.

My best guess is that in these litigious times, your reason number two predominates throughout the state now. The state isn't soft, it's being ruled by the lawyers.

posted by: Larry on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

My wife is a teacher, and I kid her constantly about the overall "wussification of America", where schools are concerned. They close the schools at the drop of a hat. (Another topic: about "orgiastic glee" at snowstorms!)

Often it is less due to road conditions than simply to cold temperatures, something that never used to happen "back in the day."

Risk aversion is the top reason though, IMO. Especially in rural and semi-rural districts, where kids stand outside and wait for buses, schools are very concerned about exposure and frostbite, etc, because parents are in their ear about it.

I am also convinced that energy costs enter into the decision process, having been told as much by school administrators I know. It is much more likely that schools will be closed on a Monday or a Friday than in the middle of a week, because the school can extend the weekend hours when they don't have to heat the building, as opposed to say, heating it up on a Monday and then cancelling school on Tuesday, only to have to re-heat the building for Wednesday.

But still, I have no doubt that we are less "hardy" as a people than we were 30-40 years ago.

posted by: Dan on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

I think there's reason to believe that "we" (read: "you" since I'm not that old) were hardier / more cavalier back in the day when it came to children. The argument doesn't hold broadly since it's not like work was cancelled in Boston (sadly, for me).

The fact that it's schools being cancelled while everyone else needs to work also shoots down reason #3 and, to a lesser extents, #s 1 and 4.

posted by: Howard on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Please do not confuse risk aversion with fear of liability. (I've never heard of a school districe being held liable for failing to cancel school). School officials generally cancel school when they perceive an elevated risk of death or extreme injury on the way to or from school. It's quite plausible that this was less of a concern a generation ago. But there's no reason to assume that it's only the fear of financial liability that makes school officials try to reduce the risk of death in their districts.

posted by: arthur on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

Here in Michigan, school closings for snow or ice are enough of a fact of life that radio stations advertise about having the most complete school closing news but it takes a really massive snowfall for all the schools in the region to close. The road crews here are used to snow so the six inches or so we got the other day didn't shut very much down. It was spread over many hours and the crews were able to keep up.

I remember being in NYC when they got a couple of inches and walking to the subway we marveled at how the city was pretty much shut down by so little snow. I like to keep my walk clear and safe, but two inches is about what it will take for me to shovel.

During the electrical brownouts in California a couple of years ago someone mentioned that people in California need to be reminded that you have to earn living somewhere, there's a price to be paid. Those of us who routinely shovel a few inches of snow so we can take our kids to schools or drive to jobs that don't shut down just for a little snow don't need that reminder.

posted by: Bozoer Rebbe on 02.14.07 at 08:48 AM [permalink]

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