What’s up with snow days?

Rick Kriesky: What’s up with snow days?

“Snow day,” “delayed opening” and “early dismissal” are all terms that evoke strong and differing emotions from various school district stakeholders each winter.

For students these terms bring exhilaration and joy. For parents, the words trigger a myriad of feelings as they scramble to prepare for the unexpected, children at home on a school day. And for superintendents, these terms are synonymous with fear, anxiety and trepidation.

As superintendents, we have the legal responsibility to make the inclement weather call for our school district when roads become treacherous. We all know that these weather-related decisions are as important as any decisions that we will ever make as superintendent. A poor weather-related decision might well result in the death or injury of a student or staff member. A perfect weather-related decision will be uneventful but safe for all students and staff.

When roadways are, or may become, hazardous, the path that guides most superintendents when considering whether to remain on a normal school schedule or to alter school hours is safety.

When considering safety, it is not only the students in the district who are on our minds, but also the staff members who may have to travel 50 or 60 miles to arrive at school or to reach their homes once school is dismissed. We cannot forget the safety and security of these dedicated employees when weather fronts and hazardous conditions strike close but not directly in the district’s boundaries.

It is important for all school closing decisions to be based upon as much factual data as possible. In searching for reliable data, superintendents use constantly evolving weather prediction models from the National Weather Service, information from the state safety agencies, ride the roads personally or assign a designee to drive the district, and talk with the superintendents in the surrounding districts.

I have learned the hard way (I have called off school prior to a sunny, bone dry day, when snow had been predicted) that the weather prediction models from the National Weather Service, while somewhat reliable, can miss the mark. Yet, these NWS models are the best and most accurate long-term predictions that we can find. So, we use them.

State emergency services and state safety agencies are genuine assets in our effort to judge the severity of a storm system when we are within 18 hours of an impending weather system. These agencies have the ability to monitor and predict storms with a high degree of reliability within that 18 hour window. But, there is still a possibility that these services may also miss the eventual path of the impending weather event.

When deciding whether or not to return to school following a snow or ice event or to call off school in the early morning hours at the onset of frozen precipitation, no data is more reliable than riding the roads in the district.

It is difficult to describe all the various conditions that may affect the safety of a particular roadway within a district. Some of these influencing conditions include: the amount of shade that a section of the road gets during the daylight hours, pavement or gravel (we do have gravel roads in our city district), bus turnaround points, the steepness of hills, and temperature variances throughout the district. Buses picking up Lexington City Schools students normally in the morning pull out of the bus lot at 5:30 a.m. Because of this early departure time, it is necessary that either our transportation director and/or I are driving the city’s streets at 4:30 a.m. to determine if the roads are safe, when there is a possibility of a closing or a delay.

For the past nine years, the superintendents of Thomasville, Lexington, and Davidson County have communicated in advance through calls and emails when weather threatens the area. These discussions allow the three districts to understand and advise each other on what they plan to do and why.

In some, but not every case, all three districts align their weather adjustments and collaborate on dismissal times or dates. From time to time Lexington and/or Thomasville might resume school after a snow event days ahead of Davidson County. This sometimes occurs because Davidson County has hundreds more miles of gravel roads and many more shady areas that thaw at a slower rate than the roads in either Lexington or Thomasville.

At other times, the decisions of the three districts may vary because, in the end, it is the judgement and legal responsibility of each superintendent to determine their own district’s course of action. Additionally, the street department in Lexington works hand in hand with the school district’s transportation department to help clear snow routes at the conclusion of a weather event. This collaboration sometimes allows Lexington buses to safely travel designated snow route streets prior to all roads being clear.

A multitude of factors must be considered by a superintendent when deciding how to respond to a weather event. These factors are based upon the unique characteristics of each individual event. Regardless of the magnitude of the weather event or the superintendent’s decision to remain on a normal school schedule or alter the schedule, there will always be someone who will have a differing opinion and their own perception of why the decision should have been different.

These differing opinions produce a constant criticism for superintendents. But, over the years I have learned that I cannot waiver from my commitment to everyone’s safety, students and staff alike, regardless of the complaints. And, I will not flinch from my belief that each weather decision should be made as early as possible, in consideration for parents who must make last-minute adjustments.

Early weather-related decisions can lead to more errors, but our parents’ unforeseen childcare adjustments must be considered when determining when to make the weather decision.

The perfect weather-related school decision is uneventful and ensures the safety for all students and all staff members. Closing school for frozen precipitation gives superintendents heartburn, but it also gives students exhilaration and joy. Two sides of the same coin. Happy sledding!

 

Rick Kriesky is superintendent Lexington City Schools