SEVERE WEATHER ISSUES
In my last two articles, I reviewed some of the background and overall issues related to weather. Two weeks ago, we looked at information from Stearns County about winter weather awareness. Last week, I reviewed background information related to school closing processes.
The process for making decisions about conducting school or closing school is one that relies a great deal on current information, connections with others and judgment calls about what to do. This week, I will cover some of the specific issues or questions that come across my desk regarding weather decisions.
Weather-related decisions are some of the toughest school decisions we have to make. In almost every instance in which weather decisions are required, most decisions come down to issues of judgment based on the best available information.
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. 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 or hard guidelines in place to determine when to conduct or cancel school. School finance, as I shared last time, is not an issue related to holding school on days with inclement weather. Our primary issue of concern is the safety of students, whether they are at home or at school.
School administration, along with bus company officials, base the school closing decision on the ability to safely transport students on busses. The primary consideration, and most important guideline we apply, is the safety of students.
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.
In our district, there are several things put in motion when it appears that a decision regarding school opening or closing needs to be made. The primary agents in the decision-making process include myself (as superintendent) and the two school bus contractors. As we go about the process, each person involved in the decision has different roles in gathering information.
As superintendent, I gather as much weather related information as possible. Typically, I check the broadcast weather reports, review internet weather sites, and make contact with regional weather “experts.” One of the sources I rely on is the information from Meteorologist Bob Weisman at St. Cloud State University. However, I also look at the major media sources in the region, the Weather Channel, and other weather projections for our area.
I will also make contact with a variety of neighboring schools and superintendents to determine what they are seeing and hearing. Over the last several years, we have developed a fairly extensive network that operates when inclement weather is projected. The network that I work with includes St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids-Rice, Sartell-St. Stephen, Albany, Holdingford, Paynesville, Eden Valley-Watkins, and Kimball. Depending on the school, the superintendents from these schools may also be in contact with some of their neighbors. Typically, the Sauk Rapids-Rice, Sartell-St. Stephen and St. Cloud superintendents will collaborate so that all three schools make the same decision about conducting school.
As we examine particular situations, conditions might also dictate a call to local or county law enforcement personnel to gather their feedback and insight. Clearly, I also communicate with our bus contractors regarding immediate road conditions and I contact any other people who might offer relevant information.
Typically, especially if the decision is an “early morning” issue, the bus contractors send out drivers to determine what the road conditions are like. Several individuals go out from Richmond and Rockville Bus Companies to check the different parts of our school district, to assess the road conditions, and to offer feedback on travel conditions. Through individuals that are actually driving the different parts of the district, we learn more directly about road conditions—areas that may be blocked, drifted, slippery, low visibility, or other issues of concern.
The contractors are generally in contact with local and county road crews to determine what has or has not been opened along with plans for road work or plowing the roads. Although many of our students live “in town”, there is a large student population that must come in from the rural areas or edges of our school district. As such, we have to look at conditions all across the district.
Most of the process begins, in the event of a possible delay or closing of school at the start, as early as 4:00 in the morning. Conversations about the decision to delay or close school may take place up until 6:00 a.m. In our district, our schedules mean that we need to determine by 6:00 in the morning what to do for the day.
Our goal is to have announcements placed on the air by 6:00 in the morning, so decisions generally need to be made prior to that time. If a decision is made to delay, we continue to work until the delay expires to gather information about the expectations for the day.
OTHER FACTORS TO CONSIDER
Outside of the weather conditions themselves, an evaluation is often made regarding family situations. We recognize that most of our students come from families in which both parents are working. As I consider the issue of closing school, I try to consider how the decision might affect the safety of children related to supervision and family activities. We don’t want students to be “home alone” or to be delivered home without appropriate supervision.
In many poor weather situations, most parents will still have to work and, often, will have to work at the “normal” times. If it is at all possible to conduct school, given safety in relation to travel concerns, on a normal time schedule, that is most likely the best situation for families. This becomes a more significant factor in the decision to close school during the day because, quite honestly, we know that we will most likely send students home to empty homes—and they may or may not be able to get in.
As a district, we must make a decision each day of the scheduled school year whether or not to conduct school. The vast majority of days do not require much consideration—conditions are appropriate to conduct school. There are, in the region we live, a number of days where decisions have to be made about conducting school. We must examine issues as they affect the entire school district and what is in the best interests of all residents of the district.
Regardless of the decision the district makes, if a parent feels that the conditions are unsafe for their child to come to school, the parent should keep the student(s) home. We will respect and work with that decision. The final, and ultimate, decision to send a child to school during inclement weather rests with the parent.
SCHOOL BUILDING ACCESS AND OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES
One other element that I would add to the weather issue is the topic of access to the buildings and when we expect students to stay indoors or go outdoors. The ROCORI School District applies Policy 4-5, School Closing Policy, in regard to changes to the school calendar for emergency weather conditions. As we have reviewed, the District has related procedures regarding late starts, early closings and other conditions affecting the conduct of school.
The School District does not, however, have a formal policy related to student access to the school building or the location of recess activities in relation to cold weather situations. Over the last couple years, we have supported a set of procedures for student access. This structure is important particularly at the elementary school level.
The procedures applied by the building principals include the following expectations:
1. If the actual temperature is below zero, students will enter or remain inside the building.
2. Students will be expected to remain inside the school buildings in extreme weather conditions—strong winds, severe weather situations (including precipitation), etc.
3. When conditions permit students to be outdoors a parent may determine that a student or students within the family should remain inside the building or be permitted to go inside the building through appropriate notification of the office staff.
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. 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 home.
We do believe, as much as possible, it is important to keep our schools operational. However, that decision will hopefully be guided by safety and the best interests of all of our students. There is no question the decisions can be very difficult; we do want to do what is best for students.