Calling snow days isn't a 'no-brainer'

WEST MICHIGAN — As students enjoy sleeping in and parents cope with their children staying home after school has been canceled, school administrators look to the future, hoping that the dangerously cold conditions will end soon.

Schools in the area have been forced to shut down because of the horrendous weather conditions recently, constantly facing the decision to give students the day off or to continue with classes.

The term “snow day” denotes a day that school is canceled because of unfavorable weather conditions, but such a simple concept emerges from a complicated process and the collaboration of school personnel and different school districts.

“Canceling school is very rarely a ‘no-brainer’ situation,” said Tim Webster, superintendent of Reed City Area Public Schools. “It’s my least favorite thing to do. It seems like every time I have to act, it’s a complicated decision.”

A number of elements factor in when determining whether or not school will be canceled, all of which can contradict each other and cause complications.

“Road conditions, temperature and wind chill and visibility are the three main factors we use to evaluate whether or not to have school,” said Tim Haist, superintendent of Big Rapids Public Schools.

Unfortunately, road conditions can vary in different areas of the region. Sometimes, back roads have dangerous conditions even though the main roads seem decent to travel on. Other times, road conditions may be fine, but wind chill or temperature can cause school to be canceled.

“As a general rule, a temperature or wind chill of 20 below zero or colder will cause school to be canceled,” Webster said. “Any colder than that, we can’t have kids standing out waiting for buses — they can get frostbite.”

Most of the time, according to Webster, deciding whether or not to cancel schools is a guessing game.

“We have to make the call by 6 a.m.,” he said. “What if, at 6 the roads are fine, but a storm will hit later in the day? Are you going to take a gamble and believe the weatherman and close school? But if you close school and nothing happens, people ask why you’re canceled. But if you don’t cancel, and somebody gets hurt, that’s a problem.”

Another complicated situation is when bad weather rolls in during the school day, threatening the ability of students to return home. Many schools are forced to cancel early, causing disruption to classroom activities and testing.

“If a big storm comes in, sometimes we have to close early,” Webster said. “We don’t like to do that because it’s a hassle for parents, and some kids are being sent home when their parents aren’t there.”

Superintendents work closely with their corresponding transportation services when deciding whether to cancel school, taking the expert advice of their transportation supervisors, who know what conditions are optimal for travel in the winter. They also collaborate with each other for suggestions.

“When you’re transporting 60 to 80 students on a bus, you need to make sure they’re safe and the bus drivers feel safe,” said Haist. “The transportation department knows the best conditions for a bus to travel. We have a team that determines the conditions, and we contact other schools to figure out whether or not school should be canceled.”

Telephone calls, emails and texts are abundant in the early morning hours as superintendents correspond with each other to make sure they make the right decision. While most of the time schools try to remain open and closed at the same time, different weather in different regions can cause dissent.

Many schools have already used up their guaranteed six snow days, and may have to make up time for days that have been missed after that grace period. Most schools will not start looking at what they need to do to make up time until late February or March.

Despite the possible hassle of having to make up days ultimately, child and parent safety remain the primary concern for decision-makers.

“Student safety is a number one concern when making the decision,” Haist said. “Parents understand that. They are relatively OK with canceled school because they know that we’re trying to keep their kids safe.”