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The Snow Day: One Tough Call

Eight common mistakes rookie leaders commit when the flurries start to fly. by RANDY L. DEWAR
Cold weather superintendents have a special alliance, solidified by at least one frenzied winter night of staying up late to watch The Weather Channel, climbing out of bed at 4 a.m. to decide if the roads are hazardous enough to cancel school and then spending the day defending their decision.

Even with 20 winters of snow-day decisions under my belt, I still wrestled with indecision on some wintry mornings. Superintendents never can stop worrying about the elements. My advice? Realize that no matter what decision you make, somebody is going to be upset.

Having said that, there are a few mistakes cold weather rookies can easily avoid when snowflakes and ice threaten the school day.

Forecasting Follies
Rookie Mistake No. 1: Calling off school on the basis of a weather forecast.

If the inclement weather forecasted doesn’t materialize, the weathercaster can laugh it off with, “The bad weather missed us this time. The upper-level gizmo failed to affect the drop in atmospheric gases and therefore it will be a nice day.” The superintendent who called off school based on that forecast can’t laugh it off.

Find a reliable source for an up-to-date weather report. A good personal relationship with your local radio or television weathercaster can help. Consider subscribing to a weather alert system with a broadcast monitor that sounds an alarm when a weather alert is at hand. Perhaps you can access a weather band channel with a special radio monitor or a cable TV station that includes The Weather Channel. Determine what source works best for you.

Don’t overlook the unconventional. Accept warnings from any and every source, including the football coach’s achy knee and your secretary’s arthritis, although sometimes behaviors of earthworms and woolly caterpillars may be more accurate than any of the above.

Rookie Mistake No. 2: Delaying an obvious call until the morning.

If the weather is already so adverse the night before that there is no way the roads could improve before the morning bus run, call school off then and stay under your electric blanket. Parents will thank you for giving them time to arrange child care for the next day.

If you do wait until the next day, get up early to greet the weather. The earlier you make the call, the happier your community will be.

Rookie Mistake No. 3: Failing to recognize the dangers of extreme cold.

Snow and ice are not your only enemies in the winter. Sometimes it is just too cold for school. While children in Wisconsin may simply throw on their parkas, boots, mittens and scarves and go out to wait for the bus, that is not the case in Oklahoma, where extreme cold weather is rare and children may not even have heavy winter coats or mittens.

Be sure the buses will start before making the decision to hold school. Cold temperatures can cause the diesel fuel that powers most school buses to turn to gel. If the buses start, they may be slow and run behind schedule while children stand and wait. The wind chill adds to the danger of frostbite, especially if the children are not dressed for the weather.

Buck Passing
Rookie Mistake No. 4: Passing the responsibility to someone else.

It is the superintendent’s responsibility to make the call. You can require each person in your snow-day information loop to give his or her own recommendation whether to stay open or close, but make it clear the final decision is yours.

When your decision is questioned, don’t pass the buck to a colleague. No school district employee is paid enough to assume the responsibility for a snow-day call. Make the call and then, as my mentor used to say, “Enjoy your exalted position.” Your colleagues will respect your courage.

Rookie Mistake No. 5: Getting stuck in the snow and being unable to call in to cancel school.

Don’t get yourself stuck in the snow somewhere, unable to make the call. Always carry a cell phone so you can contact the district office—and the tow truck. Remember, however, that cell phones don’t work in some hilly or mountainous areas.

One particularly icy dawn found the superintendent’s official car stopped at the top of the infamous Chicken George Hill. As the car edged over the crest like a novice skier peeking over the ridge of a double black diamond ski run, the slide began.

With brakes locked and the driver’s white knuckles gripping the steering wheel, the car stopped only when it reached the ditch at the bottom of the ice-covered hill, totally out of range of any cell phone tower. A school bus was expected to traverse the same hill in 90 minutes. A freezing cold walk up Chicken George taught the superintendent a lesson: Think about the consequences of driving in isolated areas to determine road conditions. It might be more prudent to call someone who lives in that area and can provide a road report without leaving his or her neighborhood.

Varying Conditions
Rookie Mistake No. 6: Making a decision without sufficient road reports from a variety of locations.

It is not enough to simply look out the window at the road in front of your house. It’s a good idea to have several people who live in strategic locations drive around their neighborhoods and then call in their road report. In rural areas, some people are already up and out of the house between 4 and 5 in the morning. Find out who they are and establish a communication chain.

Beware: Conditions in the north end of your district may be treacherous while the south end is clear. A little snow in the east end may be no threat, but the inch of ice covering pavement in the west end may make traveling treacherous.

The chief of transportation, your bus boss, should be checking the roads as well. Remember, what is passable for your four-wheel drive SUV may not be passable for a big yellow bus. If you contract for transportation, it is essential that you talk through the bad weather drill with your bus company well before the first snow of the season.

Include local law enforcement agencies on your contact list, but realize that it is to their advantage to reduce any traffic during a winter storm. They may be quick to recommend canceling school.

Check with neighboring districts. The public will judge your decision in part on how the other school districts in the area react to the weather. Sometimes a tough decision becomes easier when you find out what your neighbors are going to do. But be careful about following their lead; road conditions can vary markedly within a five-mile distance.

The final decision may be the superintendent’s, but everyone who reports on road conditions should be asked whether to conduct school or call it off. Consider their opinions, the road conditions, your neighboring districts’ decisions, and make the call.

Rookie Mistake No. 7: Calling a snow day because the private schools are closing.
While you might ask what the local private schools are planning, place more emphasis on what public school districts are doing. Many private schools rely on private vehicles for transportation, so they may close simply in anticipation of bad weather. They may be on a different schedule than the public schools. Looking to them can only confuse your decision.

Early one snowy January day, a superintendent called the head of a local parochial school and asked, “Are you having school today?” The reply was crisp and clear: “No school at St. Patrick’s today.” What was left unsaid was that St. Patrick’s never intended to have school that day because it was on semester break.

Rookie Mistake No. 8: Accepting calls at home from community members regarding the snow-day decision.
When the phone rings at your house and a voice asks, “Are we going to have school?” politely tell the caller to listen to the radio or watch TV. If you answer with a yes or no, you will become the official contact for every child and parent in your district as soon as the first snowflake falls.

This is especially true of students who have a test scheduled that day or a special report due. One day, I picked up the phone to hear the squeaky little high octave voice of an elementary school-age boy: “I am Mr. Smith and I demand that you call off school today. The snow is too dangerous for my children to go to school.” Appreciating the child’s initiative, I assured “Mr. Smith” that the safety of his children would be my No. 1 consideration.

A Workable Plan
Long before the cold weather hits, know what you will do when the first flakes fly. Remember the old adage: “Plan your work and then work your plan.” Here are some additional points to bear in mind when dealing with inclement weather:

* Consider partial bus routes. Sometimes school can be held even if every road isn’t passable by bus. Perhaps the children can walk a little further to a safe bus stop or their parents can drive them to an alternate bus stop or to school. This is an especially good option during a hard winter when students already have missed several days. Devise a system for contacting the families of students affected by a partial bus route plan.

* Keep accurate lists of bus riders. The district should always have an accurate list of riders for each bus route, especially in winter when there is an increased chance of emergencies.

* Build snow days into the school calendar. States that often face school closings during the winter regulate how snow days are built into the calendar. Try to schedule sufficient snow days so you are not scrambling in June to ensure students make up lost instructional days. Ensure that employees and parents know what will happen after a certain number of days are missed due to inclement weather.

* Consider a plan for partial days and late starts. In some areas, the roads can be icy and impassable at 7 a.m. and perfectly dry and safe by 9 a.m. That’s when delayed openings may be a viable option. The same type of plan can be developed for an early dismissal if the weather turns bad.

Beware: Today’s families often have two working parents and the delayed start or early closing can cause major child care problems. Make sure each parent has an emergency backup plan on file at school in the event school closes early and the parent can’t pick up the child or doesn’t want the child to go home to an empty house.

* Patrol all school buildings. One cold St. Joseph, Mo., morning under blizzard conditions, a conscientious principal walked the periphery of his school. There, in an outside stairwell to the basement furnace room, he found a 5-year-old boy shivering and in the fetal position. The boy’s parents, unaware that school was called off, sent him to school. Someone needs to patrol in and around school buildings during the morning to ensure children aren’t waiting for someone to show up.

* Create a calling tree. Before the bad weather hits, establish a phone tree to notify all employees and board members of school cancellations and delayed openings. Don’t take the responsibility for making more then two or three calls yourself—you have enough to keep you busy.

* Support parental judgment. If parents believe it is unsafe to send their child to school even when school is open during inclement weather, let them know you respect their judgment and understand their decision. Don’t harp on whether these are “excused” or “un-excused” absences—those words are meaningless to a concerned parent.

* Know how to inform the media. The radio and TV media have code words that callers are required to use in order for them to broadcast your decision to call off school, delay opening or close early. That way, students who want to stay home and play in the snow can’t call in and report a school cancellation.

At 6:30 a.m. one marginal weather morning in Missouri, I was shaving when I heard a young and inexperienced TV anchor announce that Lafayette High School would be closed due to weather, but Benton High School and Central High School would be in session. I almost nicked my ear with the razor. Had I heard right? My wife confirmed that I had heard correctly. But that was one of my schools!

I called the TV station but nobody answered. I drove to the station to find one of my assistants already pounding on the door. Again, no answer. The station operates with a skeleton crew of three at that hour, and the recent college journalism school graduate, unaware we had a code word, simply relayed a caller’s announcement.

We had no choice but to close the school that day. I am sure that in years to come, alumni of Lafayette High School will laugh as they remember the day they stayed home while the other students in the district had to go to school.

Work with the news media far in advance to be sure you understand their system. Watch your time. You must get the message to the media as early as possible—before parents and employees hit the road.

Your foremost consideration should be the welfare of the students. When in doubt, call off school. Err on the side of caution. There will be a better day to hold class. Then get to the office to answer the phone. Someone will be calling to ask, “Who was the idiot who called off school today?”

Randy Dewar, who spent 20 years as a superintendent in Missouri, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, is an assistant professor of educational administration at Central Missouri State University, Lovinger Hall 4106, Warrensburg, MO 64093 E-mail: dewar@cmsu1.cmsu.edu