During the school days of my youth, there was nothing more exciting than having a snow day. We would actually get up early to listen to the radio as they listed all the schools that were closed for the day. Once they called your school or school district, it was on with your warm clothes, grab your sled or disc, and away you went. Our street would be inundated with folks from all around to slide down the hill, build snowmen and forts, and bombard passing cars and each other with snowballs. Having unplanned days away from school was one of the greatest memories of my childhood.
Trigger warning: this blog is going to take an unexpected (and potentially unsettling) turn. No, this is not a screed on climate change; it is about the well-being of our students. Recently, a few Upper School students have asked the school's administration for a "snow day." Given that the weather has not cooperated and winter is fading, several students wrote eloquent requests for a day off to catch up on their sleep, relax, and take time away from the pressures of school. They even cited several of our peer independent schools who were making this choice. In my eight years at Wardlaw+Hartridge, we have, on a couple of occasions, had a "Head's Holiday" in the spring season after a quiet winter weather-wise, but to my knowledge we had never received such heartfelt and earnest appeals from our students.
Now the idea of students wanting an extra day of vacation is nothing new, but a snowless snow day seemed like something different. It did not strike me as a cavalier attempt to work less or a sign of lethargy by our Upper School students. It differed significantly from the joyous days of my youth where our fate was determined by the capricious nature of the weather. They were not asking for a day to go play (which I would have wholeheartedly supported, but that is a different blog topic). No, this was coming from a different place. While it did not approach desperation, the requests were tinged with a sense of vulnerability. At least that is what my good angels told me. But then the cynic in me reared his head and filled me with concern about coddling our students. We need to hold our teenagers accountable, build resilience, and help them understand the consequences of their choices. How will they overcome personal adversity if they never face it? Of course, our current students have faced one of the biggest disruptions in education in several lifetimes: COVID-19. But again, this did not feel related to coronavirus.
But then it happened. An incredibly important and devastating study was released by Centers for Disease Control, but it is possible you missed it. This is not for a lack of interest or caring – it is the nature of our news cycle. The reporting of the study was sandwiched between a litany of calamitous stories: Ukrainian war updates, the absolutely horrific earthquake in Turkey and Syria, more mass shootings, and mysterious spy balloons, to name a few. Here are three links that are well worth reading: the CDC press release, the full CDC study, and a Washington Post article.
The graphic below, form the CDC 2/13/2023 News Release, summarizes some of the data:
A great deal more data analysis is presented in the study, and I strongly encourage you to dig deeper. But I believe this graphic alone tells a devastating story for our current teenagers, particularly our young girls whose rate of experiencing persistent sadness and/or hopelessness has increased by nearly 60%. While W+H is a small, close-knit community, where we know our students well and do our best every day to provide intellectual and emotional support, it is important to remember that we are not immune from this trend. I do not have our exact numbers, but that is not the point. Something is happening across the country, and ignoring it will have long-lasting, damaging consequences.
While all of this is scary, one of the most frightening aspects of this study is the lack of a coherent explanation for why this trend exists. There are numerous hypotheses with more to come, many of which may identify strong possibilities. But the likely explanation is that there is no single reason for this increase in teen sadness and depression. What we absolutely need to do is talk about it. This data is real and it reflects our teenagers lived experiences in a vastly connected and highly complex world.
Our biennial Upper School Symposium titled Teenage Mental Health and Wellness will be held on April 12. This day, planned by a group of Upper School students and faculty, will address many of the issues facing our teenagers and the school community as a whole. Given this CDC study, the Symposium has never been more relevant. The topic was chosen more than a year ago, but it is clear that this is an issue that resonates with our students. Now, more than ever, we will continue the conversations and work hard to instill best practices and provide awareness of the emotional and mental health challenges that face our students.
And sometimes that will mean calling a snow day for the well-being of all, even if Mother Nature does not cooperate.