Snow Day Decisions

The decision to close schools for the day due to weather is one of the toughest any superintendent has to make. Every school day is important for our teachers and our students to achieve specific learning goals for the school year. Schooling impacts a child for life and we can’t take lightly the need for every child to be in school every day. That being said, it’s also important that we do not take lightly the conditions a winter storm brings to our area. A superintendent has to balance the need to continue classroom learning uninterrupted with the need to keep our children safe.

So far this school year we’ve been hit with one of the hardest winters in the past two decades. The exceptionally harsh windchills combined with snow, ice and wind have led to six missed school days. That equates to more than a week of lost instructional time as well as a number of disruptions to the daily routine of getting to bed early at night and attending school ready to learn. For many of our children, it has also meant not receiving a hot, nutritious lunch meal or even breakfast on days schools were closed. For our athletes, the winter season has also meant a disruptive cancelling of practices and rescheduling of games.

If I’ve learned anything as a school administrator and especially a superintendent, you can’t please everyone all the time. Any decision I make is going to leave somebody feeling dissatisfied or just downright upset. I work with that problem on a daily basis but in the end I can’t allow it to paralyze me and avoid making any decisions. It’s the nature of my job. Some decisions regarding whether or not to close school for weather are easy and some are difficult. Just this past week, with the number of weather-prediction models confirming that Tuesday morning would have the coldest windchills we’ve seen in sixteen years, it was simple to make a decision early on Monday to close the next day. That is why we were able to notify parents, students and staff at around 3:30 that afternoon. However, those days are rare given the unreliability of our weather patterns and inability for meteorologists to agree. That is why it’s more typical that a final decision to close school isn’t made until sometime between 5 and 6 am that morning. There are many factors that play into a decision to close schools and I typically find myself bundled up, coffee in hand, driving into and around the district before making a decision to close.

At a recent county-wide superintendents’ meeting, we discussed a common “standard” and process for deciding on whether to close school and school-related activities based on weather conditions. I thought I would share these with you even though in the end, the decision-making process will continue to require some subjectivity. There is no black-and-white set of factors that play into this decision.

This year, the windchills have played a major role in school closure decisions, not only because of the danger they pose, but the contribution they make to slippery road and sidewalk conditions. Windchill requires wind, and wind tends to blow snow making roads slippery and contributing to poor visibility. Some years ago, a change was made in the method for determining the windchill factor. As a county, we had been using the old method which made a -30 degree standard reasonable for all schools to close. At our recent meeting, we made a decision to adjust our common understanding to reflect a sustained windchill of -20 as one factor in making the decision to close schools. Other factors that play into the decision are travel conditions due to snow and ice (foot, auto and bus) and the time of day for which the sustained temperatures of -20 windchill occur and are forecast. In districts with a higher percentage of lower-income students, availability of cold-weather clothing is also a factor and there may be a number of others depending on the time of year, time of day, and future forecast.

For example, if temperatures are dropping overnight and winds are picking up so that the windchill factor is expected to drop to -20 after school start times, most districts including ours will choose to open as usual on that day if travel conditions allow. But if the forecast calls for significant snowfall that may impact travel back home at the end of the day on top of sustained winds and low windchill, we would likely close schools.

I understand that quite often our local TV and radio stations may be “sounding the alarm” over severe weather predictions. I certainly take any factual and reliable information into consideration but look beyond the hype to ensure my decision is based on reality and not simply possibility. After all, it’s possible to get a thunderstorm in January and it’s possible to get a snowstorm in June. With weather, anything is possible. As Michigan residents, we’ve come to expect the unexpected and prepare for conditions. We’ve had some relatively mild winters the past several years and grown unaccustomed to handling the situation we’re now in. To ensure our kids are safe and are in school as much as possible, the district and parents must work together to provide students relatively safe passage to and from school.

I’ll continue to do my best to ensure schools are operating under safe conditions and I expect parents to do your best in helping your child travel safely to and from school each and every day.

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About David Britten

Retired U.S. Army Officer, former elementary, middle and high school principal, currently serving as a public school superintendent.
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