Snow day for many kids, but not in N.Y.C. schools: how officials make the call

While parents may gripe that a decision seems arbitrary, school superintendents weigh a number of factors carefully (not including tweets from students hoping for a snow day).

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
A school bus is seen reflected in a mirror in the Brooklyn borough of New York, February 13, 2014. New York City's public schools were open Thursday morning, and the flurry of negative feedback from parents was as icy as the snowstorm pelting the city.

New York City’s public schools were open Thursday morning, and the flurry of negative feedback from parents was as icy as the snowstorm pelting the city.

With eight to 12 inches of snow forecast, comments on the school system’s Facebook page suggested children would be injured or would show up to a school with few teachers and end up watching movies. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew called the Wednesday night decision by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña “unwarranted” and ”a mistake” in a statement.
Every parent in a wintry climate has had some of those “hmm” moments – sending a child off amid snow and slush, hoping the superintendent made the right call to keep schools open, or on the flip side, finding out that school’s been canceled because of weather predictions, but seeing clear streets out the window.

“Some days, no matter what call you make, somebody’s going to be unhappy with you,” says Nashua, N.H., schools superintendent Mark Conrad, who called off school early Thursday morning.

Mr. Conrad can relate, on a smaller scale, to the barrage of complaints that New York officials received Thursday. Last year on one snowy day, about half the districts in the area closed, and half didn’t. “I was one of those that didn’t close, and it turned out to be a very difficult morning, and we did get a lot of calls, a lot of e-mails. Typically we get fewer complaints if we cancel than if we don’t cancel and the travel conditions are bad,” he says.

But while parents may gripe that a decision seems arbitrary, superintendents weigh many factors carefully (not including tweets from students hoping for a snow day).

Conrad rose at 4 a.m. Thursday. Snow wasn’t expected to start until 7, so he studied the hourly projections in a weather forecast he receives at 3 a.m. He consulted with the man in charge of plowing Nashua’s streets, as well as the terminal manager for the school buses. If snow or ice had already been a factor overnight, he would have called the police department to get real-time road reports.

Next, Conrad typically checks in with other area superintendents to compare what they’re hearing about conditions. Often the final decision can vary even among communities right next door to one another, he says, depending on how roads are maintained.

On Thursday, with snow projected to fall up to one inch per hour between noon and 6 p.m., canceling school was the clear choice, he says. Even if schools had planned for an early release, the last bus would have left at 2 p.m., a time when “plows would have had a hard time keeping up.”

When school isn't closed on a snowy day, parents of high-schoolers who drive or of small children who walk are often most concerned. “I always say to parents, you have to make a decision you are comfortable with,” Conrad says.

In New York on Thursday, some parents clearly opted to keep their children home. “If they expect me to take my child to school, they better make sure they [plow my street, because] if they don't, unless [they're] willing to send a dogsled team, there is no way I could get to school even if I wanted to,” one woman wrote on the education department’s Facebook page.

Another woman, presumably a staff member at a New York school, posted Thursday morning that students were entering her office asking for extra socks: “Their shoes are wet and they can't stop shivering. Many of our children simply don't have the proper gear to keep them warm in these horrid conditions!”

The school district did not grant an interview to the Monitor, but Chancellor Fariña and Mayor de Blasio defended their decision at a press conference Thursday morning. “The reality is that we make decisions based on what we know at the time,” Fariña said, according to CBS New York. She added that it had stopped snowing and was “absolutely a beautiful day out there,” but said the city will reexamine how it makes such calls.

In some parts of the United States, school districts have already far surpassed the typical number of snow days, and now they’re contemplating how best to make up for lost time. Some have the option of online assignments. The Michigan Legislature is considering giving districts a choice to add hours onto school days, rather than full days at the end of the year.

Anderson County, Ky., public schools have already lost 15 days, so the district surveyed parents about options such as extending the school year or canceling spring break and some holidays. On Wednesday, the school board announced that the most popular options were the latter, so school will be in session March 31 through April 4, which would have been spring break, in addition to Memorial Day, Presidents Day, and one day that had originally been set aside for professional development.

“There was no perfect solution but I think everyone understands what we're facing this year,” the county’s board chairman said in a statement.

Atlanta Public Schools are also surveying parents – to gather information about their experience in the recent debacle in which schoolchildren were stranded on buses or had to stay overnight at schools because of poor planning and tough road conditions citywide.

A statement introducing the survey says, “APS does not underestimate or underappreciate both the shock and trauma of students, parents and employees who had to endure the storm while riding on buses, driving or sheltering in place. As a district, APS will review the crisis management protocols and procedures and gather feedback to improve our emergency preparedness.”

On the other hand, when a lot of school days have been missed, pressure can mount for keeping schools open. Linton Deck, a former superintendent of a Tennessee district that included both rural and urban areas, remembers a tough decision in 1970 when icy roads led him to keep schools closed for 10 days after a storm. Calls had been pouring in for days demanding that schools be reopened, he writes in an article on the website of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). On the 11th day, schools did reopen. But a bus driver taking students home on an icy downhill road had to call to the children to jump out of the emergency door in back, and he quickly followed them, before the bus slid off the road into an empty field.

Fortunately, nobody was injured, and other accidents that day were also minor. “A month later a storm closed the schools again for a few days. The community made no complaint,” Mr. Deck writes.

Once a superintendent makes a decision, the final step is getting word out to staff and families. In Nashua, Conrad tries to get word out by 5 a.m., posting to a New Hampshire news website from his laptop, while the director of transportation posts to the district website and notifies other nearby news stations.

One tip for rookie superintendents: Be sure media contacts know you have a code word, so no prankster who wants a day off can cancel school. Randy Dewar, a former superintendent in Missouri, recalls shaving one morning and hearing a newscaster say that one of the high schools would be closed because of weather, while the others remained open. When Mr. Dewar called the station and got no answer, he drove over, but they were operating with a small crew and no one answered the door. Because an inexperienced broadcaster didn’t know about the code-word system, he had believed a fake call.

“We had no choice but to close the school that day,” Dewar writes in an article on the AASA website. “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.”

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