To Close or Not to Close:
A Superintendent's Winter Worry
How deep is the snow? How fast is it falling? Have there been any accidents? What is the wind chill? This is just some of the information school administrators process on cold or snowy winter mornings, in deciding whether schools should close. It's not always easy. Included: Tips from four superintendents for making that early-morning decision.
Dawn is three hours away and the temperature is dropping as fast as the snow is falling. Sleeping late is sounding like a plan.
But before anyone can hit that snooze button and become one with the bed, school superintendents have to rise in the cold darkness, get on the phone, and decide whether or not to cancel school. And it can be a lonely task at 4 a.m.
Four administrators who talked with Education World about their winter weather decision-making processes said that besides always considering safety first, having a system for deciding when to close -- and communicating that system to everyone in the district -- can mean making the right call most of the time.
Still, weighing whether to dismiss school early, delay, or close school is a responsibility many superintendents cheerfully would shed.
"I thought, 'Thank goodness I don't have to think about closing school anymore,'" said Briggs McAndrews, who retired two years ago as superintendent of the Niskayuna (New York) Central School District. "That has been the mantra of retiring superintendents."
PLAN, PLAN, PLAN
Relying on a consistent plan with dependable support people, though, can mean faster and more secure decisions, as many superintendents now employ meteorological terms as well as local forecasters.
"It's a crapshoot," said Robert McNamara, superintendent of the Lamoille North Supervisory Union, which serves six rural towns in northern Vermont. "But we're getting better information."
McNamara lives 45 minutes from his district, so if snow is forecast for a particular day, he gets up at 4:30 a.m. and calls the National Weather Service office at Burlington International Airport. He asks how much snow has fallen, how long the snow will last, and how much snow could accumulate.
"I also ask whether or not it will be wet snow," he added. "Heavy snow could bring down trees and power lines."
Then McNamara calls the county sheriff's office about road conditions, since most of the district's 2,000 students are bused. The sheriff is in contact with workers plowing the roads. "If the people plowing say they really are concerned, I listen," McNamara said. "In one case, even the tow trucks were not going out."
He also may consult with other superintendents before making a decision. "We've had three snow days this year [by mid-January], and they all have been easy calls," McNamara told Education World.
McAndrews, who now is the superintendent in residence for the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said he had a similar routine during his ten years as superintendent of the 4,300-student Niskayuna district. Now he works with new superintendents, and one of the roundtable discussion topics is how to decide whether to cancel school.
"I had to think about closing or delaying school about ten times a year," McAndrews told Education World. "I would start watching the forecasts the day before. Usually, the [school district's] transportation supervisor would help with the decision -- he was on the job by 4 a.m. I also would call the police and other superintendents. There was some synchronization of superintendents in the area.
"I also usually would call the highway department to ask when the plows were coming out, and for time estimates for clearing the roads. I also would get reports on road and parking lot conditions on school grounds."
Families knew the drill. "We started in October or November telling parents at meetings that they needed to have a plan in case of closings or delays," said McAndrews, since snow can start falling in that part of New York State by November.
KNOW THE COMMUNITY
Also important for administrators is knowing the community's comfort-level with holding school in inclement weather, said Dr. Dennis Fisher, deputy superintendent of Park Hill School District, Kansas City, Missouri.
"The community's expectations have changed," Fisher said. "The community is less tolerant of having school during a winter event."
On the January day Fisher spoke with Education World, school was closed. Although a storm had brought only two inches of snow, the temperature that morning was zero degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of minus15 degrees. Most of the district's 9,500 students take the bus or drive to school, if they are old enough. "The buses could navigate roads, but they probably would have taken longer," Fisher said. "I did not want kids standing outside for 20 or 30 minutes. We have to make sure the buses can make it in a reasonable amount of time."
When a storm is on the horizon, Fisher collects weather and road condition data and then makes a recommendation to the superintendent about closing. "I watch the forecasts several days in advance [of a storm]," he said. On the day in question, "I look at existing road conditions, existing weather, and the forecast."
Fisher also consults with the bus company and neighboring school districts. "Frequently, it's a regional decision," he added. "I don't want to make a decision too soon, but I want enough time so people can react. The latest we make a decision is 6 a.m., but I try for earlier."
For some communities, where winter always means lots of severe cold and heavy snow, life, including school, just presses on. "We rarely close school; we've only closed school once in four years," said Dr. Gary Prest, superintendent of the Bloomington, (Minnesota) Public Schools. "In Minnesota, where snow is common, we have all kinds of ways to take care of it. We have ways to make sure school stays open." The school district owns plows, and workers clear the school parking lots. On this particular day, school was in session despite temperatures of minus 10, with the wind chill pushing the thermometer down to minus 34 degrees.
Prest added that the past three Minnesota winters have been atypical, with milder temperatures and below-average snowfall.
He is ready, though, for extreme winter weather. District personnel test the school closing procedures each year. When the weather looks ominous, Prest said he monitors National Weather Service reports, consults with the police and public works' department, and also has a conference call with surrounding superintendents. "It's a series of decision points."
The district also sends out a "test bus" at 3 a.m. to check road conditions, and find out where there might be any problem spots. "We're just prepared."
All four superintendents said they now avoid delaying school or closing early, because it is so disruptive to families, particularly those with two working parents. "Late starts or early dismissals cause havoc," Fisher said. "Parents prefer no school to delays."
IT'S HOW COLD OUTSIDE?
One weather factor, which many superintendents are just learning to evaluate this year, is Arctic temperatures. Parts of the Northeast and Midwest experienced several days or weeks in January of sub-zero weather, causing some administrators to worry that just traveling to school was risky for youngsters.
"The new challenge is coping with extreme cold," said McNamara. On one January day, the temperature in his part of Vermont was 37 degrees below zero. Twenty-mile an hour winds blew the temperature down to 50 degrees below zero.
Only three of seven buses started, but McNamara said he reluctantly kept school open, and informed parents that buses were going to be delayed.
Now he is educating himself about the affects of wind chill and the minimum exposure time before frostbite occurs, using resources such as the the National Weather Service Office Wind Chill Index. "The same rules don't apply in evaluating cold [as snow]," McNamara said. "Wind is a bigger factor in frostbite than the cold."
While Minnesota is used to bitter cold, residents are not used to Arctic chills that last weeks at a time, as they have this year, Prest said.
During those periods, school bus drivers come in early to warm the buses, and students are encouraged to wait inside whenever possible until the buses come, or to sit in cars at the bus stops until the bus arrives, he said. All of the buses have radios, so if a bus breaks down or is late, the driver can call for another bus.
Many schools throughout New York State closed one day during the extreme cold snap, to prevent youngsters from traveling in below-zero temperatures, said McAndrews.
Even as superintendents cope with this new variable, the importance of keeping people informed remains critical. McNamara plans to create a brochure for parents and students about safety in the extreme cold, and set a time limit for how long children should wait outside, depending on the wind speed. "I've looked into how long you need to stand outside to get frostbitten. We want to set a standard, and determine when the wind chill is a factor," he said.
While administrators may not make the right decision every time, the more people know about how decisions are made, the less likely they are to second-guess school officials when flurries turn into drifts, or blizzards into dustings.
"I would get a little more grief if we stayed open, when people thought we should close, but only three or four calls," McAndrews said. "Most people are reasonable when you explain the process."
Article by Ellen R. Delisio
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