We have had a lot of days with cold weather concerns already this winter! As we returned to school from the holiday break, the Governor closed schools and we had another cold day after. We bounce around between warmer and colder weather with a few days of each! Although I shared broader parameters earlier in the year about closing processes, I thought I would address the issue of cold weather specifically.
The Governor closed schools on January 6 for a number of reasons but the Department of Education explained that the primary issue was the historic cold and wind chill conditions. The combination of temperatures in the twenties below zero and the strong winds pushed wind chills into the -50s and -60s.
Those conditions are very difficult. It is likely, given the same conditions without the Governor’s decree, that we would have closed schools as well. The Governor’s order, however, did not leave such a choice.
NOAA/NWS WIND CHILL CHART
When we look at the issues of cold temperatures, one of the critical tools that we use to help “guide” decisions is the Wind Chill Chart from the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The chart is available on the internet but it is a great guide.
The wind chill chart shows the effects of the combination of temperatures and wind. In particular, it shows three different zones of concern for wind chill and frostbite. An important point to remember is that the frostbite zone is for completely exposed skin—we also normally assume that students and staff will be appropriately dressed for conditions.
Although the 30 minute frostbite range is of concern to us, we typically do not change school plans with the forecasts in those ranges. The 30 minute window does allow students to safely get to and from the bus as well as to and from school.
The range that is of most concern is when frostbite can happen in ten minutes or less. Generally, as you review the chart, that zone requires temperatures at the extreme or higher levels of wind speed. For example, a temperature of 15 below would require wind speeds at 15 mph to fall in the 10 minute zone.
Although we do not use the chart as a sole determinant, it is a great guide to help with decisions. We also look at other conditions in making a decision.
As with normal school closing decisions, we also need to look at the other things happening.
Driving conditions are an important element. We need to ask the questions about the ability of our buses to travel to and from school. Are the roads clear or is it likely that buses will encounter drifted, slippery, or obstructed conditions?
Visibility is another key issue. Although in the extreme cold, visibility is not generally an issue, it can become an issue if there has been recent snow fall or there is a possibility of blowing snow. Much like the road conditions, if visibility is a concern, it is more likely that we would close or delay school.
DELAY OR CLOSE
When we do determine that conditions warrant some kind of change in school operations, the next question is whether a delay of opening school is appropriate or if we should close school completely. This is often a very difficult decision.
Generally, in cold weather conditions, it is not very likely that a little bit of time will make much difference in the conditions. One or two hours, especially early in the morning, does not usually allow enough time to improve the temperature a great deal. The best thing a delay usually provides is daylight for getting to and from school.
There are times, however, when a couple hours can make a difference. On Thursday, for example, the overnight lows were projected to be below -20 degrees. The wind was expected to be under 10 mph. Those conditions put the wind chill chart right on the border of the 30 minute and 10 minute frostbite line.
The expectation, as the day started, was for temperatures to rise slightly (into the minus teens) and the wind was expected to stay at about 7 or 8 mph. Those conditions, although cold, were in the 30 minute frostbite window. That was enough of a change for the delay to be a positive issue.
Often, with extreme cold, conditions work the other way. Although the temperature may move upward a little bit, the daylight often also brings stronger winds. When that happens, the conditions may actually worsen rather than improve. That would call for a cancelation of school rather than simply a delay.
Although a large number of our students, especially at the high school level, provide their own transportation, our primary concern has to be the ability of our buses to get through. As a district, we essentially offer transportation to all of our students. Many choose not to use the bus system, but we do not deny transportation within the district.
With all of the technology available and the locations of our sites, we have extremely good ability to respond to any bus concerns within a very short window of time. Radio and phone services allow any bus that experiences difficulty to call for assistance quickly. Our compact district helps with relatively short distances to get to any part of the district.
Buses are maintained at high levels of service. They are regularly inspected and each company prides themselves on the quality of the buses that run our district. Buses are warmed up prior to leaving the garages and conditions on the buses are appropriately controlled.
ROUTINE TIMES AND SCHEDULES
Many families in our district, regardless of the weather conditions, still have parents that must report to work. This is also a factor in our decision-making process.
The reason this enters is because routine times and schedules make it more likely that students will be prepared to go to school—both in getting to transportation and in clothing that is worn.
When we depart from the regular schedule, we put more students in position that they will be going to school without parental supervision. This increases the chances of bus delays, missing the school bus, standing outside for longer periods of time, or wearing less than appropriate covering.
If we have the ability to stay on schedule, we have a better chance to have students prepared to get to school appropriately.
As I have shared in other columns, when there are weather issues or concerns, parents always have the option to make their own decision about sending students to school. If there are personal family concerns, the parent may simply call the school to let us know that students are being kept home because of weather conditions.
Closing or delaying school is often a very challenging decision. Regardless of the choice we make, there are always questions that remain. If cold weather is the core issue we are facing, the temperature itself must be very extreme to become dangerous.
More often, it is the combination of cold temperature and wind that is of issue. The NOAA/NWS wind chill chart is a great guide to our decision process. When the conditions reach a point of frostbite in 10 minutes or less, we are likely to exercise some type of action related to school operations.