SEVERE WEATHER ISSUES
Although the last few weeks have been much more interesting, most of the fall has been so nice that it is hard to make the transition to address winter weather issues. The colder weather of the last couple weeks and some of the snowfall experiences have determined that I really need to address issues related to severe weather conditions.
I know that I review this topic each year, but I do think it is important to share information about how we deal with winter weather issues. It is easy to lose track of the processes and elements involved in winter weather decisions.
I will cover school closing issues over the next two weeks. In this week’s column, I would like to review some of the background and overall issues related to weather. Next week, I will cover some of the specific issues or questions that come across my desk regarding weather decisions.
To be “open and transparent” about the issues involved, I must admit that weather-related decisions are some of the toughest school decisions we have to make. In almost every instance where weather decisions are required, the issue involves a projection of what will happen given the circumstances and conditions. None of us can ever be exact, perfect, or absolutely accurate in making a projection. While many other school decisions have relatively clear guidelines or standards to measure, weather doesn’t really offer clear-cut issues—most weather-related decisions come down to issues of judgment based on the best available information.
Weather forecasters are asked to make projections all the time and our decisions are most frequently guided by what we see or hear from the weather experts. It is, however, much easier to be the forecaster who says “schools should close” when their comments don’t necessarily mean that families face tough decisions about work, childcare, bus safety, and all the other implications. Even so, we need their information to make tough decisions for our schools.
FORECASTS AND WEATHER FACTORS
Although weather forecasting is based on scientific principles, there is no guarantee that forecasts or projections will be completely accurate. Weather conditions can also be very different in locations just a few miles apart. Meteorologists, with all their training, can only offer us their best speculations and yet we need to make important decisions based on that information.
Many factors of the weather also play a role in the decisions we must make. The air temperature, amounts of precipitation (in whatever form it takes), wind speed, wind direction, length of expected conditions, timing of weather changes, severity of conditions, previous conditions, and many other issues complicate the process of weather decisions.
When making decisions about conducting school, consideration is given to weather reports, visibility, wind, existing snow, road conditions, temperature, daylight hours, and highway department recommendations. Periodically, we may also receive input from local or county law enforcement officials.
When we look at all the factors—snow, wind, temperature, fog, wind chill, visibility, length of time, etc.—there are so many possibilities or conditions, making weather decisions can be a very difficult and challenging process. We try to take the best information available and make an effort to exercise good judgment with careful deliberation. As I noted, these are often very hard decisions.
Because of the many different conditions that can be found in one or many situations, there are no formal guidelines in place to determine exactly when to conduct or cancel school. Each decision is made independently based on the conditions that exist and are forecast at the time of the decision.
Contrary to popular belief, there is not a specific wind chill, amount of snow, level of wind speed, or temperature condition that “automatically” triggers a decision to have or not have school. Combinations of these issues certainly weigh into decisions, but there is nothing that specifically defines any one element “making” our decision.
In working with other area superintendents, there is a general feeling that the National Weather Service wind chill chart is an excellent resource when extreme cold becomes a part of the situation. The wind chill chart has a “boundary” line where the frostbite time moves from 30 minutes to 10 minutes. As superintendents and school leaders have talked about these extreme conditions, we have generally agreed that the 10 minute frostbite zone would be a point at which areas schools would be likely to close.
The challenge with this is that the temperature and wind interact so that the boundary “moves”. Thirty below, with no wind, is still within the 30 minute window. In that case, school would be conducted. Thirty below, however, with a 10 mph wind is clearly in the 10 minute frostbite window. In this case, school would likely be closed or delayed—depending on the remainder of the forecast! The 10 minute zone is a standard that many school leaders in the area agree would be used to close school.
As a school administrator, I believe one of the most important issues related to the decision to close school is the capability of busses to safely transport students. We work closely with bus company officials to discuss this question and reach a conclusion about the ability of busses to move through their routes safely. The primary consideration, and most important guideline we apply, is the safety of students.
Perhaps the two greatest factors affecting student safety are visibility and road conditions. We need bus drivers to be able to see where they are driving and we need roads to be in appropriate condition to be able to maneuver properly. If conditions are such that drivers cannot see where they are going or if roads are impassable, students cannot be safely transported.
Each of the issues listed above can have a significant effect on the final decision. There are times when one or more of the elements weigh more heavily than others, but each situation requires individual assessment. The bottom line, in all cases of the decision to open or close school, it is a judgment call about student safety based on the best available information.
DECISIONS NOT FINANCIAL
During my time as a school leader, I have often heard the concern expressed that we “choose to keep school open because of a fear of lost state or federal aid”. This suggests that we only keep school open because otherwise we lose money. I can assure you that financial issues do not enter into any of our decisions to conduct school.
The fact is, on financial issues, we are paid by the state on the basis of student membership over the course of the year. We are not paid based on whether we conduct school on a day-to-day basis. Issues of calendar, school closing, and number of days are not affected by and do not have an effect on the state foundation aid we receive.
Federal dollars, more specifically, are not at all related to the number of school days. These revenues are purely distributed on the basis of the number of students. School finance, then, is not an issue related to holding school on days with inclement weather.
The decision to have school, to delay school, or to cancel school during inclement weather really has to do with our ability to safely transport students. If, as we look at current and expected conditions, we believe that we can safely and appropriately move students to and from the school setting, then we will conduct school.
Determining when to hold, delay, or cancel school is never an “exact science.” There are many factors that must be weighed in the decision and many issues that enter into the process. It requires the use of the best information possible, an examination of current and expected conditions, and exercise of judgment.
As I will share in more detail next week, if at any time a parent disagrees with the decision regarding holding school on the basis of weather factors, the parent has the ability to keep the student or students home.
Next week, we will take a look at some of the other factors entering into the decision-making process. I intend to look at some of the issues or questions that frequently cross my desk in regard to school closing situations. We will also work through some specific examples of weather-related decisions.