COLD WEATHER ISSUES
In December, this column was used to describe our winter weather procedures. In the procedures, I covered quite a bit of information about the process used to determine whether or not school would be conducted and if a delayed start to school might be applied. This past week, we had another opportunity to apply procedures—this time in regard to cold weather.
On Tuesday morning, we conducted school on our regular schedule. A number of our neighbors—particularly those to the north and west of us—applied a two hour delay even though weather conditions were very similar to ours. Because we ran on time, there were some calls and questions to my office about the standards that are used in relation to cold weather. Given the more specific nature of the issue to cold weather, I thought I would take some time to share what happens.
As I shared in the very first articles, the issue that is highest in priority is safely transporting students to school. The description that was offered, in regard to safe transportation of students, was the standard of reasonably expecting our buses to be able to get to and from school without incident.
The issue is illustrated by some key questions. Can the drivers clearly see where they are going? Are the roads, themselves, visible to drivers so they may stay in the proper lanes, understand where other drivers are going, and follow appropriate routes? Are the roads in condition that it is likely buses will get in an out without incident? Are roads passable for buses? Can other drivers see our students waiting and being transported? Can the drivers and buses safely get to all of their areas and stops?
Part of the question within the issue of student safety is also projecting when or if conditions will improve. If it is likely that conditions will deteriorate, then it is less likely that we can safely transport students. If the conditions will improve, the question is “how soon will the improvement happen”? These issues all help to decide if a delay of school, early dismissal, or closure of school is needed.
These questions can help to clarify the issue of student safety. The more questions that cannot be answered in a positive manner, the greater the need to delay the start of school, send students home early or decide that school cannot be conducted. Current conditions, projections and forecasts are all needed to help with these decisions.
EFFECTS OF COLD WEATHER
Cold weather, by itself, does not necessarily impose a transportation safety issue. By that, I am not saying there are not dangers to exposure in the cold but that the cold weather does not necessarily pose a transportation problem.
Cold weather does not typically change the visibility. Cold weather, by itself, does not usually change road conditions or travel conditions. Cold weather, by itself, does not necessarily affect the operations of other drivers or accessibility to stops. As such, cold weather (by itself) is not a transportation problem.
There is no question that extremely cold weather conditions can be dangerous to people—especially if people have exposed skin, stay in the conditions for extended periods of time, or are not properly protected. These issues, however, are conditions that can be addressed and for which appropriate actions to provide protection can be taken. Dressing appropriately, wearing hats and gloves, using scarves, wearing boots, and other actions can all help to prevent cold weather problems.
COMBINATIONS OF ELEMENTS
Cold weather, coupled with strong winds, can pose a much stronger danger. As wind chill charts show, strong winds can quickly reduce the overall temperatures and speed the danger times for exposure. If there are winds present with cold temperatures, there is a greater transportation danger.
Cold weather and visibility issues pose a transportation problem. If the cold weather comes with conditions that blow snow or develop “habitation fog” where particles are suspended and frozen in the air, transportation becomes more dangerous.
Cold weather and blowing or drifting snow can become a transportation issue. Icy roads or other conditions beneath buses in cold weather become more problematic.
Again, the more of these conditions that exist, the greater the danger and higher probability that we must adjust our school schedules. The fewer conditions, the more likely it is that we can safely transport students.
Weather forecasts are also quite important in the decision-making process. What we watch, most closely, is how much different conditions are expected to be if a change in schedule is made.
If we delay school for two hours, for example, the question is how much better are conditions expected to be at the later time. If they are not expected to improve within the two hour window of time, the best decision might be to cancel school completely. If they are expected to improve, the delay might be the best step to take.
Another way to look at the question is whether or not conditions are expected to change. If so, what is the timeline for change? If the change is minimal in two hours, what is gained by the two hour wait? If the change might be significant, then waiting is likely the best step to take.
As a specific example, one might consider temperature. If the temperature is expected to be 20 degrees below zero at 7:00 a.m. (when buses depart) and are expected to be 23 degrees below zero at 9:00 a.m., the conditions are deteriorating and would suggest waiting to see what would happen or would suggest closing for the day.
If the temperature is -20 at 7:00 but is expected to be -18 by 9:00, there is really not much difference. If it is only temperature that is being considered, does the two degree change really make the conditions that much different? Rarely do the temperatures change very dramatically when the conditions are extreme cold.
One important issue, for our district, is the fact that many families have both parents working and that our best opportunity to have students protected as fully as possible (meaning wearing the right clothing, dressing for the weather, etc.) is to operate on a regular routine. Most families have routines worked out in regard to parental supervision, movement to and from school and other issues when school is conducted at regular times.
When we depart from regular times, we are more likely to have situations where parental supervision is reduced and routines are altered. These are times where students, then, would be less likely to dress appropriately, would be more likely to be outside for extended periods of time, and would be more likely to experience problems. Disruption to schedule, by imposing a delay, is an issue that we must factor into decisions to operate on time.
I have been asked to if there is a specific temperature or wind chill for which a decision is automatically made to alter our schedules. There is not.
Our policies do not have a specific temperature, range, or situation in which school will automatically be delayed or canceled. The expectation is that we will take each day and each situation as they occur and evaluate the appropriate conditions to determine what to do. It will always be a matter of professional judgment and discretion.
As I noted at the outset, the greater the number of conditions that are evident to impact the situation, the greater the probability that school will be delayed, released early, or canceled. If there are fewer conditions present, it is likely that school will be conducted on time.
On Tuesday morning, there were a number of schools that delayed their opening because of cold weather. Based on the information available, we made a decision that we could safely transport students. Although the temperatures were cold (it was -19 degrees at 5:00 a.m.), there was no wind present.
All the forecasts showed that it would remain fairly cold throughout the day. There might be a couple degree change in any given hour of the day, but the temperatures were not expected to change dramatically. The forecasts indicated that it would still be 13 to 15 degrees below zero around 9:00 a.m.—the time buses would have gone out in a two hour delay. The difference, however, was that there was a greater potential for some wind (5-7 mph) as the sun came out and the day grew longer. So, even though the temperature would go up, it would seem colder at the later times.
Given those elements, the decision was made that it was better to conduct school at regular times. The weather was not significantly different and it was more likely that students would have better protection from the elements if the routines of a school day were followed.
On Thursday, a large number of schools took weather forecasts from Wednesday night into account to determine school delays in the next morning. To me, the difficulty was that the forecasts varied pretty widely! Forecast lows, at least as I saw them, ranged from 23 below to about 13 below. Wind forecasts varied pretty widely on Wednesday evening as well—from under 10 mph to as much as 25 mph. The variety told me that it would be better to wait until morning.
As I checked weather at about 4:30 a.m. on Thursday, the temperature had not dropped as expected during the night. The temperature was -9 and expected to remain there until about 9:00 a.m. The wind was very minimal, calm to 5 mph. With temperatures not dropping overnight and wind much less than anticipated, we were clearly able to conduct school at regular time.
Making weather decisions is not a clear-cut science. Even in cold temperatures, we take a number of factors into account and look at the totality of conditions. The key question we always ask is whether or not we believe we can safely transport students.
Parents always, in extreme weather conditions, have the option to disagree with our decision. In that case, students may be kept at home. We will expect them to make up work, but we will not question the decision on school attendance.