Teachers I know have jetted off to spend their midwinter recess in the Dominican Republic, New Orleans, and even a Trappist monastery in Virginia. But I bet they have no idea why they have the week off.
I thought the vacation was a way for the city to save on fuel costs during the dead of winter. In fact, the recess is the result of a deal cut in the early 1990s between the mayor and the teachers union at a time when, like now, the city was facing teacher layoffs. (The city also had a midwinter recess briefly during the fuel crisis of the 1970s to save on heating costs.)
From a 1992 New York Times article about the first midwinter recess:
The new winter vacation was an offshoot of a fiscal crisis that shook New York City in 1990.
Mayor David N. Dinkins had just reached agreement with the United Federation of Teachers, which offered him critical support in his election campaign, that provided them a 5.8 percent increase in wages and benefits when the bad news hit.
The settlement was immediately denounced by fiscal monitors and editorial writers, and a campaign was begun to roll back the increase, or at least defer them so that they would not affect the city’s fiscal standing. Mr. Fernandez was faced with a $95 million budget, which would have meant laying off 3,000 teachers.
Mr. Fernandez averted the layoffs by persuading the teachers to defer $40 million of their wage increase in exchange for, among other sweeteners, a winter break long sought by teachers, especially teachers who lived in the suburbs and whose children were already off from school the same week.
Chancellor Joseph Fernandez called the vacation “Kids Week” and encouraged schools and cultural institutions to offer special programs for children during the days off. But parents complained that it was hard to find child care during the surprise vacation.