Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Why are you closing school?!

When I took the post of Superintendent in a small-urban, Central Illinois school district, people joked about the fact that we would never see another winter weather closing.  I grew up in Minneapolis, MN.  I love winter. In fact, the colder the better - as long as there is plenty of snow. 

Today, I am facing down my fourth, yes, FOURTH winter weather closing of the 2013-2014 winter.  Closing school is never an easy decision, mainly because it is not an exact science.  My primary consideration is the safety of students.  The majority of students in our district live within 1.5 miles from their school, and therefore do not receive transportation from the district.  In extreme temperatures, I watch young children walk to school without hats, gloves, and, sometimes, proper jackets.  Many students walk 10, 15, 20, and even 30 minutes or more. 

Closing a school due to snow or extreme cold is not something I take lightly.  I always prefer to keep students in school, however, if the weather is so extreme that a student is at risk of frost-bite or worse, we have to balance the desire to hold school with student safety.  When it is clear that weather might be an issue, we spend a great deal of time consulting experts, glued to apps and websites - the National Weather Service is my favorite: http://www.crh.noaa.gov/ilx/.  We also talk to public works, grounds crews, transportation experts, and other superintendents.  The decision to close schools is not an exact science.  There is a lot of room for error, especially when there is pressure to make a decision early enough for families to make childcare arrangements. 

I have learned that there are a lot of misconceptions about frost-bite.  The National Weather Service Wind Chill Chart (http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/windchill/index.shtml) helps me explain the dangers of cold temperatures and wind chill to parents, students, and colleagues.  However, I always stress that this chart is not "the" answer for when to close school; it just provides one more piece of the puzzle.  

Either way, I am not sure any winter weather school closing decision is 100% obvious.  I know I will hear when people disagree, and I honestly do appreciate the dialogue, because it provides additional opportunities for education and reflection.  

As a Minnesotan, I also feel the need to advocate for outdoor winter activities.  I run, ski, sled, walk, and play outside in extreme temperatures.  During the recent “Polar Vortex” I spent several hours outside shoveling snow and walking to and from schools.  However, I was dressed appropriately:  multiple layers, all skin covered, and exposed areas (around eyes and nose) covered with Dermatone.  Unfortunately, not all of our families have the means to dress for the Polar Vortex. Which means we have to wrestle with the decision to close schools to protect children from frostbite and hypothermia. 

Stay safe and warm.