Commentary Family

For Appalachian Families, Too Many Snow Days Can Mean Hunger and Money Worries

Ali Stine

School-based food pantries feed households, and when you don't have spare cash for emergency child care, cancellations can push you into the abyss.

The superintendent of the local public school calls me more than my long-distance boyfriend—and my boyfriend calls me every night. I now have the number memorized. The call usually comes at bedtime, though sometimes it’s 4:00 or 6:00 a.m., a robocall with the news: no school tomorrow.

No school again.

We’re on our sixth snow day of the year. The weather has been harsh: cold and snowy.

But the repeated school cancellations have shocked my friends and family in areas only a couple hours north of where my son and I live. School has been called off due to an inch of snow, because snow fell the day before or the day before that, because plows haven’t reached side roads; or, as rumor has it, because kids don’t have warm enough coats.

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These are all realities of my home in southeastern Ohio, one of the poorest areas in the state—justifiable reasons for canceling school when students live down dirt or gravel roads, on steep ridges or hills with hairpin turns.

But canceling school in Appalachia introduces dire complications into already-difficult lives. And when you’re living on the brink of poverty, one small complication—like a car repair, an illness, or a child out of school—can send you into the abyss.

Kids who don’t have warm enough coats to wait for the school bus or to walk to school in the cold may not have enough heat at home—or enough food. Missing school means missing free or reduced hot meals (and at one elementary school in my county, 99 percent of children need them).

To cancel school on a Friday means some children may go hungry for three full days, as a number of students receive backpacks of donated food to take home for the weekend. Packed with peanut butter, protein bars, tuna, noodles, and crackers—small items that a kindergartener could both carry and prepare for themselves—these backpacks help children in food-insecure homes get through the days without school lunches.

But those days are stretching on and on.

It’s not only children who utilize the services of a school—and who suffer when school closes. On a Wednesday when my 7-year-old son’s school district canceled, one of the school nurses sent out an urgent message. The school food pantry, housed in a former elementary school building, was still open and distributing food to anyone in need.

Parents and guardians are punished when school closes. We don’t get snow days. I work from home, with understanding bosses, but most parents don’t have flexible work hours. Most of us can’t bring our kids to work, and we can’t afford to miss days, especially multiple days in a row.

There aren’t options for working parents when school closes, especially not for single parents like myself. My community, like many, does not have enough affordable child care, let alone emergency child care. One snow day, a friend’s teenage daughter played with my son while I worked at home, and my friend drove to her job an hour away. I’ve been relying on extended family, begging for favors. Other single moms and I have traded care, balancing frantic work hours around watching each other’s children, an arrangement my son called “a monstrosity of play dates.”

I’ve been staying up late, after my son goes to bed, to finish work. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on extra babysitters, money that was not in my budget. Both my son and I are exhausted, ready to return to our routines. Other friends’ children have cried at the snow day calls, distraught over not seeing their friends or teachers, missing the activities of school yet another day.

There just isn’t a lot for kids to do in underserved, rural communities when schools close. My town has limited public transportation, no indoor playgrounds or play spaces except at one fast food place. When playing outside isn’t an option due to cold temperatures, kids get too much screen time. Or worse. I’ve seen very young-looking children outside with no adults around. Are they home alone?

To be sure, I want children to be safe in bad weather, but in Appalachia, school can be one of the safest places for children, a place they are reliably fed, kept warm, and kept out of trouble during the day, not to mention educated and socialized. School is also an emblem of the health of a community. And like the pot holes opening up in the roads, these repeated snow days reveal the cracks in our infrastructure.

Older school buses can’t start. Hilly roads are too treacherous and unmaintained for buses to attempt them. We don’t have enough ice and snow control—plows, drivers, sand, or salt. After the last snowfall, it was days before my street, a major residential road with heavy traffic, even saw a plow. Two years ago when I lived on a more rural road, my neighbor, a volunteer firefighter who owned a truck with a plow, got tired of waiting for the city and plowed the road himself. My son watched from the living room window and cheered.

It is true that some communities, like my own, aren’t as used to the intense winter weather much of the nation has been experiencing. But winter is not over yet. If current climate patterns continue, weather is only going to get more chaotic and extreme, and excessive snow days do a disservice to children, to their families, and to the community. Canceling school repeatedly fails to meet the needs of a community, and fails to respond to a changing world.

When kids don’t have warm enough coats, don’t cancel school—start a coat drive. When repeated infrastructure problems interfere with daily activities like school, maybe it’s time to actually work on repairing those structures, as President Trump has vaguely promised with his $1 trillion infrastructure plan, which so far, has not been enacted. We need better roads, better bridges and school buildings, and we need to be prepared.

That’s something that Appalachia has always done uniquely well: being ready and making it work. So I have stockpiled dried beans and frozen meat, the draft in my kitchen door is stuffed with paper towels, and if my son’s sled breaks, we can use a cookie sheet.

I’m ready for another snow day. But I also know that my son and his friends do best when they’re in school; parents, when they’re allowed to work; and a community, when it’s permitted to run smoothly. Rather than just keep kids home, we need to invest in their future—and in ours.

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